Immigration Estimates For Region Vary Widely From Source to Source

By Karin Brulliard and Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 11, 2006

Nine years after Haydee Salguero left Guatemala for the United States, she became a U.S. citizen and gave up her Guatemalan passport. But ask her what she is, and Salguero doesn't hesitate.

"Guatemalan, of course," said the 32-year-old legal assistant, who lives in Fairfax County. Salguero said things will be a bit fuzzier for her first child, who is due to be born in the United States in October. The baby will be American on paper, she said, but both Guatemalan and American "in spirit."

For the U.S. Census Bureau, the official scorekeeper of the U.S. public, it's a simpler issue: "Guatemalans" are people born in Guatemala. The census counts of the immigrant population reflect the number of people here who were born outside the United States. Those figures are used to track the flows of immigration and to determine funding for government programs serving immigrants.

But as Salguero illustrates, the notion of nationality can rest on more than birthplace -- and it's a key reason why foreign embassy counts of their compatriots in the United States can greatly differ from census data. When embassies are asked for estimates, many count U.S.-born children as immigrants because they might be entitled to claim citizenship in their parents' homeland as well.

For example, just how many Salvadorans live in the Washington region?

The 2000 Census says 105,000.

The Current Population Survey, conducted monthly by the Census Bureau, says the number averaged about 130,000 over the past three years.

But ask Salvadoran Ambassador René A. León, and the figure skyrockets to nearly 500,000.

"The expansion of services has been so demanded that we opened a consulate in Woodbridge," León said. "If we count the number of passports we issue, we cannot be serving a universe of Salvadorans in this area of less than 400,000 to 500,000. It would be impossible to be serving less than that."

At the height of a national debate about the future of U.S. immigration, estimates of how many illegal immigrants reside in this country vary widely. They range from the commonly cited 11 million -- derived by the nonprofit Pew Hispanic Center from census and immigration data -- to 20 million, which the investment firm Bear Stearns came up with last year after looking at school district figures, remittances and other micro-trends.

Locally, in an area where census figures suggest that one in five residents was born abroad, the estimated number of Peruvians, Mexicans and others also can differ by tens of thousands -- depending on the source.

Embassy officials acknowledge that their population calculations are extrapolations based on the number of passports, visas or identification cards they issue. They say the census vastly undercounts immigrant populations, which have skyrocketed since 2000, when the most accurate and detailed figures were released.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company