The United States isn’t the only country struggling to manage illegal immigration. The Public Accounts Committee in the United Kingdom’s (UK) House of Commons recently published an immigration enforcement report that indicates the UK is experiencing similar problems — more fundamental than what we usually see on the news. 

The UK committee concluded among other things that the government of the UK does not know the size of the UK’s illegal population or have a clear grasp of the harm that it is causing. The same is true here in the United States.

The U.S. government claims to know how large its undocumented population is, and immigration advocates claim that immigrants are committing fewer crimes than native-born Americans — but these claims are not based on reliable information.

The situation in the UK

In the UK, the Home Office is responsible for immigration enforcement; according to the report, it has not estimated the size of the UK’s illegal population since 2005, which prevents it from establishing a meaningful baseline for measuring progress in reducing the size of the illegal population.

Moreover, the Home Office doesn’t know how many aliens are entering the UK illegally, or how many enter on temporary visas and don’t leave when their visas expire. In the United States, it’s apparent that there are more visa overstays than illegal entries.

The Home Office has, however, identified harm that can be attributed to illegal immigration into the UK. This includes such things as the crimes committed by undocumented aliens, the cost of public services provided to aliens who should not be receiving them, and financial harm to employers who only hire aliens with legal work authorization and have to compete with employers who hire undocumented aliens for low wages.

But the UK government does not know how many undocumented aliens are engaged in harmful activities.

In the UK, the term “BAME” is used to describe people who are not of white British descent.  It is an acronym for “Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic.” Although the Home Office acknowledges the value of diversity, only one member of its current executive committee comes from a BAME background.

According to the report, the Home Office acknowledges that it needs to become more involved in working with and listening to communities, particularly the ones that do not have a positive view of its enforcement measures.

When asked whether it should increase interior enforcement instead of concentrating its resources on border security, the UK Home Office responded that it sees managing immigration at the border and in the interior of the country as a single system — but it isn’t managing its enforcement that way yet.

U.S. has similar issues

In December 2018, the Department of Homeland Security estimated that 12 million undocumented aliens were living in the United States in January 2015.

DHS uses data from the annual American Community Surveys (ACS) to estimate the number of foreign-born people in the United States; then it subtracts an estimate of the number of lawful immigrants from the foreign-born estimate. The remainder is DHS’s estimate of the undocumented alien population.

The problem with this approach is that the ACS only questions one percent of the population.

And it calculates the foreign-born population by asking for a person’s place of birth, his race, and whether he is a US citizen. It is unrealistic to expect undocumented aliens who are trying to avoid detection to answer such questions truthfully. 

DHS needs a more reliable way to estimate how many undocumented aliens are living in the United States.

It isn’t possible to evaluate the extent to which illegal immigration is a problem without knowing how many undocumented aliens there are.

Nor is it possible to estimate how many aliens would participate in a legalization program without that knowledge.

It also would provide a metric for estimating the effectiveness of border security measures.

DHS collects data on illegal border crossings, but it only counts crossings that are detected. It can’t count crossings no one sees. Knowing whether the size of the undocumented population is going up or down significantly would provide an indication of the overall effectiveness of border security measures.

Neither country knows how much crime undocumented aliens are committing

According to an article in Scientific American, immigration crime research indicates that immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans.

Very few of these studies, however, have focused on “illegal” immigration, as opposed to immigration generally, which includes legal as well as illegal. It’s an important distinction.

The CATO Institute recently released a working paper on how much crime undocumented aliens commit, but CATO was only able to get the data it needed from Texas. Texas is the only state that records information about the immigration status of people entering its criminal justice system.

CATO claims that the low undocumented alien crime rate in Texas suggests that undocumented aliens have a lower crime rate in the other states too. Maybe, but how reliable is that suggestion? There are 49 other states. 

The recent report in the UK may encourage that country to make a more current estimate of its illegal population and to determine the extent to which undocumented aliens are harming the UK.

Although establishing an accurate estimate of the number of undocumented aliens in the United States isn’t on president-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenBrother of Biden adviser Ricchetti hired as lobbyist at Amazon Sunday shows preview: COVID-19 relief waiting on Trump’s signature; government continues vaccine roll out Global COVID-19 cases surpass 80 million MORE’s immigration agenda, he will need to identify the undocumented aliens who are committing felonies to be able to implement his immigration enforcement measures.

At one of the Democratic primary debates, Biden said, “…in the first 100 days of my administration, no one, no one will be deported at all.  From that point on, the only deportations that will take place are commissions of felonies in the United States of America.”

Does this mean that he is going to tell ICE to seek out and arrest undocumented aliens who are committing felonies in American communities, or is he just going to tell ICE to ignore undocumented aliens who have not committed a felony? There’s a distinction — and I think the likely result of the latter is that ICE will limit apprehensions to aliens being released from prison after serving a sentence for committing a felony. The problem, of course, is that ICE has to rely on receiving notice from prison authorities to know that alien felons are about to be released, and only one state is providing information about the immigration status of aliens in its criminal justice system. And what about aliens in our communities who have already been released from prison after serving a sentence for committing a felony?

I would like to believe that Biden cares more about protecting American communities from crime than he does about appeasing immigration advocacy groups, but his promise to end Trump’s enforcement measures suggests that is not very likely.

Nolan Rappaport was detailed to the House Judiciary Committee as an executive branch immigration law expert for three years. He subsequently served as an immigration counsel for the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims for four years. Prior to working on the Judiciary Committee, he wrote decisions for the Board of Immigration Appeals for 20 years. Follow his blog at

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