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PolitiFact Florida: Have 40% of illegal immigrants simply overstayed their visas?

In discussing immigration, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida cited data going back to the 1990s, which is the best available because of a lack of updates by federal agencies.
In discussing immigration, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida cited data going back to the 1990s, which is the best available because of a lack of updates by federal agencies.
Published Aug. 3, 2015

Sen. Marco Rubio said that while people sneaking into the United States is a legitimate problem, the immigration system is so broken that almost half of all immigrants who are in the country illegally entered through legal channels.

"We have a porous border, meaning not just the border with Mexico, but 40 percent of people in this country, illegally, are overstaying visas," the Republican Florida senator and presidential candidate said on Fox & Friends on July 22.

If that's a stat that sounds familiar, it's because Rubio has said it before — including during his 2010 Senate campaign. Former Gov. Jeb Bush has cited the number, too.

But is it accurate? It turns out that we hear the figure so often because it's the most commonly accepted estimate, although it's getting a little long in the tooth.

We didn't hear back from Rubio's office when we tried to contact him, but in all likelihood, he was referring to a calculation done by the Pew Research Center, an independent "fact tank" that doesn't take policy positions.

In a 2006 report, Pew estimated that "nearly half of all the unauthorized migrants now living in the United States entered the country legally through a port of entry, such as an airport or a border crossing point, where they were subject to inspection by immigration officials." While the source data gave an estimate that ranged from 33 percent to 50 percent, the report went middle-of-the-road and called it 45 percent.

That report relied on a 1997 study from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. While trying to ascertain how many immigrants arrived and departed, the INS concluded that in 1996, 41 percent of immigrants in the country illegally had entered legally.

Robert Warren, a former INS demographer whose work was a part of that 1997 report, told PolitiFact that immigration trends have changed over the years. Since 2008, there are more immigrants overstaying their visas than crossing the border illegally, but there are fewer immigrants in the country illegally overall. The generally agreed upon total now is about 11 million, down from a high of 12 million in 2007.

But Warren, currently a fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Migration Studies, said the percentage of all overstays "had been consistent over the past 30 years." Most people crossing the border illegally come from about a half-dozen countries, especially Mexico, he said. Unauthorized immigrants from all other countries are almost all overstays.

There have been other estimates of overstays: In January 2003, the INS released a report that said 33 percent of the illegal immigrant population in 2000 had entered the country legally. A 2004 report from the General Accounting Office, based on 2000 data, gave estimates on visa overstays ranging from 27 percent to 31 percent to 57 percent.

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But no one has truly updated those estimates since then, mostly because there is no data available from which to draw new conclusions, said the Migration Policy Institute's Marc Rosenblum.

He said the Department of Homeland Security developed a methodology for estimating visa overstayers among people traveling by air and sea but doesn't have an official way to count people entering by land. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman confirmed to us that the agency has not recently released statistics on the number of overstays.

Rosenblum said for now the old estimates are the best ones available. Homeland Security has promised Congress it would compile new data, he said, but no results have been made public. Until then, there's no research that would truly dispute Rubio's claim.

"The short answer is that no reliable estimate has been published since the Pew study," Rosenblum said.

Overall, this widely cited statistic is an estimate based on research that has roots going back to the 1990s. But because federal agencies haven't provided new data, there's little for analysts to use to provide an updated figure. Experts (including the demographer who created the initial estimate) told us that while immigration trends have changed over the years, 40 percent can still be considered an acceptable estimate. We rate Rubio's statement Mostly True.