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Analysis: 11 million illegals in the United States

Impact of the undocumented

Study cites boom in the job rolls

By Cindy Rodriguez, Globe Staff, 2/6/2001

The number of undocumented workers in the United States could be several million more than federal officials have previously estimated, according to a new analysis of Census Bureau data and Labor Department records.

Most of the undocumented workers found employment in the new economy, and their availability may even have helped fuel it, according to the study by economists at Northeastern University.

The number of undocumented workers swelled in the last decade to as many as 11 million, suggests the analysis, which was performed by Andrew Sum and colleagues. That is 5 million higher than currently estimated by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service.

When 2000 Census figures were released six weeks ago, they showed that the nation had grown to 281 million people, a figure 7 million higher than the Census Bureau had projected a year before, using birth, death, and immigration data.

That spurred professors at Northeastern to begin looking for answers.

After poring over statistics from the Census Bureau and the Labor Department, Sum has concluded that most of the 7 million additional people the Census Bureau counted in 2000 had entered the country illegally in the 1990s.

Undocumented immigrants have to be the answer, said Sum, director of the university's Center for Labor Market Studies. ''This changes everything. We're going to have to rewrite the story about the new economy of the '90s.''

If Sum is right, many of the jobs created in the last decade went to either new immigrants or to individuals who for some reason were not counted during the 1990 Census. Many of those jobs are at low wages and could disappear during a recession, causing widespread unemployment of the undocumented immigrant workforce.

Top officials at the Census Bureau said that Sum's analysis is plausible and that a better counting of undocumented immigrants could explain the discrepancy between the 2000 Census and earlier estimates.

But John Thompson, an associate director of the Census Bureau, said there is no way to be sure of the nation's total population until the Census Bureau completes its Accuracy and Coverage Evaluation, which uses statistical analysis to determine whether there was an undercount. Historically, the US Census has determined it has overcounted whites and undercounted minorities, renters, Native Americans living on reservations, and children.

Kenneth W. Prewitt, who served as executive director of the US Census Bureau until Jan. 20, said that one reason the Census Bureau underestimated population in recent years is that a court decision prevented the agency from correcting a 4-million undercount in 1990.

However, Prewitt conceded that the 2000 Census may have missed as many as 4 million people. When all tabulations are in, the US population could be adjusted upward, so that 7 million people are still unaccounted for.

The Census Bureau uses birth and death records as a barometer of population growth. It then includes immigration figures collected by INS. The only population that is not directly measured is the undocumented immigrant population, people who enter the US illegally or overstay their visas.

This year, INS estimated that figure at 6 million. Prewitt said it's clear that the number of undocumented immigrants is higher, but how much higher is unknown.

After listening to Sum explain his findings during a teleconference, Prewitt said the study seems solid.

''It's a very plausible, intelligent analysis of the facts that are available to us today,'' Prewitt said. ''At this point, there is no way for us to conclude how large the undocumented population is.''

Sum, along with economists Paul Harrington and Neeta Fogg, believes that there are at least 2 million more undocumented workers than estimated and perhaps as many as 5 million more.

To support his argument, Sum compared Current Employment Statistics, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles from payroll records, to the Census Bureau's Population Survey, a tally of employed people.

After looking at 30 years of data, Sum noticed an increasing discrepancy in the numbers. The number of jobs on payrolls has risen rapidly over the number of people believed to be employed.

Between 1994 and 2000, the Current Employment Statistics recorded 17.3 million new jobs, while the Population Survey recorded only 12.1 million more employed people.

Why were there 5.2 million more jobs than people working? Some of that difference may be explained by an increase in the number holding multiple jobs and a shift from self-employment to employee status. But that wouldn't explain 5 million new jobs.

''Who were holding all these jobs?'' Sum said. ''All you have to do is look around you. Walk the streets, take the bus, go into any hotel in town. Walk into the kitchen of any restaurant. It's immigrants.''

Sum says the states that have the largest gap between people working and reported jobs are the states with the highest percentages of new immigrants and those where INS reports the largest number of undocumented immigrants: Nevada, California, Arizona, Texas, and New York.

Those also happen to be states that have had surprising population increases.

Much of that increase can be explained by new immigrants, Sum said.

Massachusetts would have seen a population decline, he said, if not for a large number of undocumented workers.


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