The Consequences: A Look Behind The Claims On Immigration

Welcome to the latest installment of “The Consequences,” a series of chats about the issues being debated in this year’s political campaign. Throughout the campaign, we’ll gather a group of FiveThirtyEight staffers and guests for a conversation on subjects in the news, particularly when the subjects are complex and could use a little illumination.

This week’s subject is immigration, which is a central theme in this year’s presidential race. Our participants are three members of FiveThirtyEight’s staff — the site’s economics editor, Ben Casselman, and two reporters who write frequently about immigration and economic issues, Farai Chideya and Anna Maria Barry-Jester — and one guest, Ana Gonzalez-Barrera. She is a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center who has studied statistics and public-opinion polling on immigration.

Ben: Thanks to you all for joining us! Immigration is maybe THE issue of the 2016 campaign, at least for Donald Trump. And it was right back center-stage Wednesday when Trump made a surprise trip to Mexico and then delivered a major speech in Phoenix that outlined his immigration policy. So we have lots to talk about.

Before we get into the policy details too much, though, I want to start with some basic facts about immigration and illegal immigration. Ana, maybe you can start us off here: What are the basic trends on immigration in general and illegal immigration in particular? The two look pretty different, right?

Ana: There are 42.2 million immigrants living in the U.S., according to 2014 census data. Of them, an estimated 11.3 million were in the country without authorization. This number is slightly down from a 12.2 million peak in 2007, right before the Great Recession.

Ben: Right. One thing that often seems to get lost in this debate is that the trends on legal and illegal immigration look very different. The total number of immigrants is rising and is on track to hit an all-time high as a share of the population. But the number of undocumented immigrants is down from its peak and has been pretty much flat in recent years.

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