Pew Hispanic Center
Illegal immigrants constitute about 4 percent of adults in the United States, but they gave birth to about 8 percent of babies in 2008, according to a study published yesterday by the Pew Hispanic Center.
The findings, based on 2009 census data, reveal how illegal immigrants differ from the overall American population in age, fertility and marriage.
"This is a population of young, working families. That's what drives these birth numbers," said Jeff Passel, co-author of the study and senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, D.C.
The median age of illegal-immigrant adults is 35.5, compared with 45.9 for legal immigrants and 46.3 for American natives, the study found. Of illegal-immigrant adults, 45 percent live with a spouse or partner and a child or children, compared with 34 percent of legal immigrants and 21 percent of U.S.-born adults.
About 85 percent of the parents who are illegal immigrants are Latino, Passel said. Foreign-born Latinos also have higher rates of fertility than their U.S.-born counterparts, whites, blacks and Asians.
"You have an accumulation of people here, so they're here, they form families and then they have kids," Passel said.
Children born in the U.S. are citizens, regardless of their parents' legal status. Nationwide, 7 percent of children under 18 years old, or 5.1 million kids, have at least one parent in the country illegally. Of those children, 79 percent were born here, the study found.
The study comes amid heated debate in Washington over whether to change the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to anyone born in the country.
A nationwide survey in June by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, an affiliate of the Pew Hispanic Center, found 56 percent of people oppose such an amendment, while 41 percent support it. A more recent poll by CNN found an even smaller margin, with 51 percent opposed and 49 percent in favor.
The controversy began when Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Fox News that "people come here to have babies. They come here to drop a child. It's called 'drop and leave.'" Graham has proposed that birthright citizenship no longer apply to children of illegal immigrants.
Research by the Center and others does not support Graham's "drop and leave" claim.
The Center reports that among illegal immigrants who give birth, more than 80 percent have been in the country for at least a year or more.
Douglas Massey, a Princeton University sociologist who has surveyed Mexicans who come the U.S. illegally, told PolitiFact that "no one ever mentioned having kids in the U.S." as a reason for migrating. Overall, about 59 percent of the country's illegal immigrants come from Mexico, according to the Center.
I've been surveying Mexican immigrants to the U.S. for 30 years as part of the Mexican Migration Project. We don't ask people their reasons for migrating because most people cannot really articulate the reasons very well – you get simple answers like, 'I came for the money,' but that doesn't tell you much because people can want money for all kinds of reasons. But we do ask about their migratory behavior, which we then link to social and economic conditions on both sides of the border. What our work shows is that migrants come in response to labor demand in the U.S. and are motivated by economic problems at home.
Still, the Center's study brings needed attention to birthright citizenship, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a research group in Washington that supports reduced immigration.
"I'm skeptical of changing our citizenship rules," Krikorian said. "My concern is that it's really a symptom; it's not a problem. You have to fix the problem … the problem being too much illegal immigration."
American-born children don't automatically mean parents become citizens. Once they turn 21, and if they meet certain financial requirements, children may sponsor their parents. However, parents who immigrated illegally must return to their home countries for up 10 years before applying.
Still, Krikorian said, "Now that they have kids, even though it doesn't create any automatic legal right to stay here, it does create a political pressure, or political difficulty, in deporting people."
Because children of illegal immigrants qualify for public programs, they are a major source of the cost of illegal immigration, Krikorian said.
Based on 2002 census data, the Center for Immigration Studies calculated that households headed by illegal immigrants cost $10.4 billion more than they contributed in taxes. Among the largest costs were Medicaid, food assistance, federal prison and court systems, and federal aid to schools.
The nation's illegal immigrant population – about 12 million in 2008 – plateaued during the recession, the Pew Hispanic Center reported. California is home to 2.7 million illegal immigrants – more than any other state – but its share of the population is falling as migration spreads throughout the nation, particularly in southeastern states.
What the number and distribution of the illegal immigrants means for the future newborn population is unclear, Passel said. The Center plans to release a follow-up study later this month examining the population size and settlement patterns of illegal immigrants.
"If there's still going to be a lot of people here, they're still going to have births," he said.