Why Do 11 Million Undocumented Immigrants Live in the US?

One of the Trump campaign’s central issues focused on immigration to the United States, and since moving into the White House, the administration has been swift to crack down on undocumented immigrants.

One of the more visible examples of this initiative involves the new push by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain and deport people lacking documentation. Trump has also been seeking to tighten the criteria required of immigrants, including the exclusion of individuals deemed likely to need financial assistance.

Then, of course, there is Trump’s contentious plan to build a wall stretching across the entirely of the U.S.–Mexico border.

At present, an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States. Considering the size of this population, it is worth exploring why these individuals came to the U.S., how they crossed the border and why they lack legal residency status.

Why do people immigrate to the United States?

While there is hardly a simplistic, one-size-fits-all answer, for many immigrants, it boils down to simply seeking a better life for either themselves or their family.

This can mean pursuing better economic opportunities or even seeking refuge away from a homeland where violence is a daily threat. In many cases, however, these individuals aren’t necessarily planning on becoming permanent residents in the U.S.; often, immigrants believe — or at least hope — that one day they will return to their home countries.

Why do so many immigrants end up staying in the U.S.?

This question can’t be easily answered for all 11 million undocumented immigrants. However, two key factors come into play: conditions back home and how much success they experience while residing in the U.S.

Obviously, immigrants have little influence over the rampant violence and war affecting their home countries. And even if it becomes safer to return, the transition can be challenging. In a country devastated by conflict, for instance, a refugee family’s home and surrounding infrastructure may have been destroyed.

Meanwhile, achieving economic success in the U.S. can be difficult. This is largely because undocumented immigrants are not subject to worker protection laws, such as minimum wage. With few job opportunities available to immigrants, employers can easily exploit these individuals by paying them meager wages.

Combined with the high cost of living in many U.S. cities, immigrants often struggle to merely stay afloat financially, making their goals of moving back home with savings a distant fantasy.

How do undocumented immigrants enter the U.S. in the first place?

Though immigration hardliners often entertain the notion of people —  Mexicans, in particular — crossing the border on foot, this is not the sole method of entry.  – a belief that’s used to justify Trump’s border wall –

In many situations, immigrants obtain a tourist visa — or some other document – legally, and book a flight to the U.S. After going through customs, it is merely a matter of exceeding the period of stay permitted by their visa to become an undocumented immigrant. Estimates suggest that this has become the primary method of entry for undocumented Mexican immigrants.

And if Trump’s border wall materializes, experts believe this form of entry will become even more common.

Why do immigrants fail to obtain legal documentation?

The best way to understand this question is to examine the immigration process. While there are a handful of options depending on an immigrant’s situation, we will focus on the main paths to legal residency and citizenship. Bear in mind that none of these routes guarantee legal residency, no matter the situation.

The most common way to obtain a green card — the colloquial name for a visa permitting long-term residency, ranging from two to 10 years — is through family. If someone seeking a green card has relatives with permanent U.S. residency or citizenship, that person’s family can file a petition on their behalf.

Preference is given to foreign applicants with a direct relationship to the legal citizen — for example, a son or mother.

A more complex and expensive way to obtain a green card is through employment. In most cases, a company hoping to hire an immigrant on a permanent basis can go through the sponsorship process — though they have to be highly motivated to do so because it involves a large financial investment. Immigrants who obtain green cards in this way tend to possess specialized skills and higher education.

Other, less common immigration methods include diversity visas –- often referred to as the green card “lottery” –- in which petitioners are randomly selected from a pool of other hopefuls.

Once a petition is accepted, then the application process begins. This step generally involves submitting a great deal of documentation.

After the application is approved, then it is time for the interview. Assuming all the hurdles have been successfully cleared, a green card is granted.

But having a green card is far different from being a naturalized citizen. This requires another long — and often more difficult — process, including an extensive application and an interview with a test focused on U.S. history, law and government. Try your luck with this practice citizenship test.

Why is this such a difficult process?

Aside from the extensive paperwork and red tape involved, the citizenship process is highly exclusionary. For those who lack family or spouses who are permanent U.S. residents, it is particularly difficult. The same holds true for those who do not possess skills that are in high demand. Individuals who are most eager to access greater economic opportunities are often those who lack the means to obtain higher education, creating a significant barrier to immigration.

For those who do not fall within these categories, long-term or permanent immigration is most likely to be off the table altogether.

Now that we understand the basic routes to staying in the U.S. legally, it is time to take a quick look at some of the common misconceptions Americans tend to hold regarding undocumented immigrants.

Do undocumented immigrants commit more violent or property crimes than legal residents?

Simply put, no, they do not. The inverse has actually been found to be true –- those born in the U.S. commit crimes at greater rates than immigrants of any legal status. Some speculate that the trend can be explained include a desire to avoid the attention of law enforcement out of fear of deportation.

Do immigrants pay taxes? 

Contrary to popular belief — as with the previous question — even undocumented immigrants pay taxes, including income taxes. And when it comes to welfare and services like public schools, immigrants are likely to benefit less from these programs than what they pay into the system.

Moreover, immigrants working as both skilled and unskilled employees do not take jobs from Americans, nor do they hurt the economy. The reality is that these individuals tend to fill niches otherwise vacant — or becoming vacated — due to retiring baby boomers across the skill spectrum.

Immigrants are also more likely to open and operate successful small businesses –- which is one of the best ways to stimulate the economy and create new jobs.

When U.S. employers seek out and exploit undocumented immigrant labor, they subvert the American workforce and hurt wages. Far from the fault of immigrants, this mistreatment should be attributed to discriminatory employers, as well as the exclusionary immigration process that encourages individuals to stay in the U.S. illegally.

Were the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. allowed an opportunity to seek legitimate residency, they would be protected by labor and wage laws. An expensive border wall will do little to curb illegal immigration; with so many undocumented people already in the country, it makes the most sense — morally and fiscally — to develop ways to offer them legitimate residency.

Consider watching this video, which sums up some of these points in a humorous and informative way:

Photo Credit: longislandwins/Flickr


Marie W
Marie W1 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Janet B
Janet B2 years ago


Deborah W
Deborah W2 years ago

BECAUSE THEY CAN. It's common knowledge that U.S. employers play a large role in seeking them out and exploiting them under the guise of aid, which in truth subverts the American workforce and hurts wages -- at the same hiking their own bottom line. Following is the best description of the USA condition I've come across lately ... our youth are jobless, leaders clueless, relationships meaningless, attitudes careless, feelings heartless, government clueless, and politicians worthless. Did it miss anything? Up to us to be the change ...
Covered by

Christian M
Christian Menges2 years ago

Noted thx.

Carl R
Carl R2 years ago


Mary F
Mary F2 years ago

It is so easy as we sit in comfortable chairs, in comfortable homes, drinking our clean water, eating our nice meals, knowing we were born here and never had to struggle for anything except flipping the channel on our flat screen televisions. What if it all changed overnight and WE woke up on the OTHER side of the border1

Margie F
Margie FOURIE2 years ago

Well then are illegal.

Brett C
Brett Cloud2 years ago


Brett C
Brett Cloud2 years ago


Dan B
Dan Blossfeld2 years ago

Heather G.,
America is not that different from other countries. Each country sets their own immigration policy. This is controlled largely by the need for workers. Countries like Japan and Denmark are known for having the strictest policy, and the lowest immigrant population. Conversely, Canada and Australia have the highest. In recent times, refugees have added to the mix.