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Illegal Immigrant Population Grows to 5 Million

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 8, 1997; Page A03

The number of illegal immigrants residing permanently in the United States has grown to about 5 million and is rising by 275,000 a year, the Immigration and Naturalization Service said yesterday.

In what federal officials called their most accurate calculation ever of illegal immigration, the INS estimated that this population has increased by 28 percent in the past four years alone. According to the new analysis, illegal immigrants now account for nearly 2 percent of the total U.S. population.

The new figure raised questions about the strategy of Congress and the Clinton administration to throw the great bulk of U.S. resources at the southwestern border with Mexico in efforts to combat illegal immigration.

According to the INS study, 41 percent of the illegal resident population, or 2.1 million people, originally entered the country legally at airports and other entry points but then overstayed their temporary visas. Of the net increase in the illegal population of 275,000 a year, about 125,000 a year are visa overstayers, the INS said.

Yet, while dramatically beefing up the U.S. Border Patrol, Congress did not appropriate funds for a relatively modest addition of 300 investigators to ferret out visa overstayers inside the country.

"Congress and the administration . . . remembered the policemen and forgot the detectives," complained INS special agent Robert A. McGraw in a recent article in the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association journal. "Neglect of INS investigations . . . continues, and this means little or nothing is likely to improve."

According to advocates of lower immigration levels, the new estimate of illegal immigrants also represents a failure of the 1986 immigration reform act in which Congress granted amnesty to nearly 3 million illegal aliens. The act was intended to clamp off future illegal immigration, but it failed to deal effectively with unauthorized employment and to remove the "job magnet" that draws people to this country, these advocates complain.

"The illegal population has now reached the level that it was before the 1986 amnesty," said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "The past 10 years have essentially canceled out the entire effect of the amnesty."

In announcing the new estimate, Robert Bach, the INS executive associate commissioner for policy and planning, described the illegal immigrant population as a problem largely "inherited" from previous administrations. He said that over the past two decades, "a lack of resources and attention allowed illegal immigration to flourish," but that the administration now has an effective "multiyear strategy" to cope with it.

"It takes awhile to turn an aircraft carrier around," he said. "We have no reason to believe the problem is getting worse. We have every reason to believe we're making significant progress." He cited record expulsions of 68,000 illegal aliens last year and said the INS expects to remove 93,000 more this year.

However, critics said the removals still fall far short of keeping up with the new arrivals of illegal aliens, much less of putting a dent in the 5 million illegal population.

In issuing its new figures, the INS revised upward its estimate of the illegal population in 1992, to 3.9 million from 3.4 million, meaning that the Clinton administration inherited nearly 80 percent of the current total, Bach said.

The illegal immigrant population is heavily concentrated in certain regions of the country, with 83 percent of the residents thought to be living in seven states, the figures show. California tops the list with 40 percent of the total, or about 2 million people, up nearly 100,000 a year since 1992. Texas accounts for 14.1 percent of the U.S. illegal population and New York has 10.8 percent, the INS reported.

The District of Columbia has 30,000 illegal residents, or 0.6 percent of the national total, a number that has grown by 2,000 a year since 1992. Virginia has 55,000 illegal immigrants, up from 42,000 in 1992 and accounting for 1.1 percent of the U.S. total. Maryland has 44,000, with growth of 3,000 a year.

A majority of the U.S. illegal immigrant population, 2.7 million or 54 percent, came from Mexico, the INS said. The countries with the next highest shares were El Salvador, Guatemala, Canada and Haiti.

The 5 million figure does not reflect the total impact of illegal immigration on the U.S. population, since it does not include children born in the United States to illegal immigrant parents, INS officials said.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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