Estimating Immigration in Virginia

Dec 12, 2017

Credit MBandman / Creative Commons

Immigration policy has become one of the most hotly debated topics in Washington and in Richmond. But, as Michael Pope reports, some key details are missing.

The United States has about 11.3 million undocumented immigrants. But how many of them are living in Virginia?

“At the national level, ballpark estimates are credible.”

That’s Qian Cai at the University of Virginia, who says she's often asked to give a ballpark estimate for undocumented immigrants in Virginia.

“But the smaller the geography gets to, even at the state level, the margin of error gets to be quite large. And that’s why it’s not often produced or cited at the state level for illegal immigration statistics.”

The United States Census does not ask questions about immigration status. Neither do surveys conducted by federal agencies. And, she says, undocumented immigrants tend to avoid filling out the surveys altogether. So they’re essentially missing from the count of non-citizens.

“At the state or sub-state level there’s no solid reliable data source to derive a meaningful estimate about illegal immigration.”

The national estimates come from subtracting legal residents who are foreign born from the total foreign-born population, a calculation that gives a good ballpark for national numbers. But the folks at UVA say doing this kind of indirect estimate at the state level would be unreliable.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.