[Excerpt] The unauthorized alien (illegal alien) population in the United States is a key and controversial immigration issue. In recent years, competing views on how to address this population have proved to be a major obstacle to enacting comprehensive immigration reform legislation. The unauthorized alien issue is likely to be a key challenge if, as the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House have indicated, the 111th Congress takes up immigration reform legislation this year.
It is unknown, at any point in time, how many unauthorized aliens are in the United States, what countries they are from, when they came to the United States, where they are living, and what their demographic, family, and other characteristics are. Demographers develop estimates about unauthorized aliens using available survey data on the U.S. foreign-born population. These estimates can help inform possible policy options to address the unauthorized alien population. According to recent estimates by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), approximately 10.8 million unauthorized aliens were living in the United States in January 2009. Using different sources, the Pew Hispanic Center has estimated the March 2008 unauthorized resident population at about 11.9 million.
The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and other federal laws place various restrictions on unauthorized aliens. They have no legal right to live or work in the United States and are subject to removal from the country. At the same time, the INA provides limited avenues for certain unauthorized aliens to obtain legal permanent residence.
Over the years, a range of options has been offered for addressing the unauthorized resident alien population. In most cases, the ultimate goal is to reduce the number of aliens in the United States who lack legal status. One set of options centers on requiring or encouraging illegal aliens to depart the country. Those who support this approach argue that these aliens are in the United States in violation of the law and that their presence variously threatens social order, national security, and economic prosperity. One departure strategy is to locate and deport unauthorized aliens from the United States. Another departure strategy, known as attrition through enforcement, seeks to significantly reduce the size of the unauthorized alien population by across-the-board enforcement of immigration laws.
One of the basic tenets of the departure approach is that unauthorized aliens in the United States should not be granted benefits. An opposing strategy would grant qualifying unauthorized aliens various benefits, including an opportunity to obtain legal status. Supporters of this type of approach do not characterize unauthorized aliens in the United States as lawbreakers, but rather as contributors to the economy and society at large. A variety of proposals have been put forth over the years to grant some type of legal status to some portion of the unauthorized population. Some of these options would use existing mechanisms under immigration law to grant legal status. Others would establish new legalization programs. Some would benefit a particular subset of the unauthorized population, such as students or agricultural workers, while others would make relief available more broadly.
This report will be updated if developments warrant.