Immigration Statistics:

Information Gaps, Quality Issues Limit Utility of Federal Data to Policymakers

GGD-98-164: Published: Jul 31, 1998. Publicly Released: Sep 2, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO identified: (1) policy-related information needs for immigration statistics; (2) federal statistics (and information gaps) on the full range of demographic concepts relevant to immigration policy decisions, including what is known about the quality of those statistics; and (3) strategies for improving statistics.

GAO noted that: (1) Congress periodically makes decisions about numerous immigration policies; (2) thus, informed decisionmaking by congressional committees and members of Congress as well as interested members of the general public, requires information on immigration flow, by legal status; (3) Congress also decides on the eligibility of the foreign-born for government benefits and services--with different benefits typically allowed or restricted for different categories of the foreign-born population; (4) GAO identified 33 discrete categories of demographic information that could be relevant to congressional decisionmaking; (5) information on immigration flow is reported in annual Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Statistical Yearbooks; (6) statistics on demographic categories other than flow are reported in a more scattered fashion; indeed, a variety of INS and Bureau of the Census publications, including the INS Web page, must be accessed in order to retrieve basic information; (7) INS records that are maintained for administrative purposes are the basis for most federal statistics on flow; (8) these statistics describe the number of new legal permanent residents, new refugees and asylees, and new naturalized citizens; (9) as reported in the INS Yearbook, however, these statistics are limited by conceptual problems and confused reporting, undercounts, and information gaps; (10) the number of new asylees--persons granted asylum--and the number of persons granted citizenship are undercounted in the Yearbook tallies because the data omit certain groups of persons; (11) statistics for other demographic categories are not available; (12) while Census provides some information on the size of the resident foreign-born population, annual net change in size, and emigration, Census has not quantitatively evaluated these data with respect to coverage, accuracy of reported place of birth, or nonresponse rates; (13) there are no separate Census data on legal status because none of the surveys ask questions about legal status; (14) INS has made efforts to fill information gaps for some legal statuses by using the limited data that are available and creating assumption-based models; (15) GAO attempted to identify existing strategies or develop new ones to improve immigration statistics; (16) GAO devised a new method for collecting survey data on the legal status of foreign-born respondents; and (17) GAO also identified strategies for evaluating survey data on the foreign-born.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This report is based on GAO's recommendation in GGD-98-164 that "to reduce the uncertainty associated with statistical estimates of relevant demographic concepts other than immigration flow, fill information gaps for specific legal statuses, and address fragmented reporting, the Commissioner of INS and the Director of the Bureau of the Census should together either publish a joint report or closely coordinated reports that present information on population size, net change, and emigration." Since Fiscal Year 2001, the Census Bureau and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS) have continued to publish a variety of reports that resulted from their joint collaboration during planning meetings. These reports include (1) profiles of the foreign-born population in the United States; and (2) a series of Census Bureau Working Papers on evaluating components of international migration that are posted on the Census Bureau's Internet web site on such topics as foreign-born immigrants, quality of foreign-born and Hispanic population data, estimates of the foreign-born by migrant status, and temporary legal migrants. OIS has most recently published about half a dozen new research papers on legal immigration, naturalization, and refugee applicants and admissions to the United States. The research and publication of the foregoing reports demonstrates a continuing commitment by OIS and the Census Bureau that is fully responsive to and justifies closing this recommendation. (Analyst's Note: On March 1, 2003, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was transferred from the Department of Justice to DHS; consequently, this recommendation was redirected to DHS.)

    Recommendation: To reduce the uncertainty associated with statistical estimates of relevant demographic concepts other than immigration flow, fill information gaps for specific legal statuses, and address fragmented reporting, the Commissioner of INS and the Director of Bureau of the Census should together either publish a joint report or closely coordinate reports that present information on population size, net change, and emigration.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This report is based on GAO's recommendation in GGD-98-164 that "the Commissioner of INS and the Director of the Bureau of the Census should together further develop, test, and evaluate the three-card method that GAO devised for surveying the foreign-born about their legal status." The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agreed to fund such a test to further develop the 3-card method if the Census Bureau agreed to evaluate the results. Using approximately $20,000 that DHS provided, the Census Bureau contracted with the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) to conduct a partial field test of the 3-card method in the 2004 General Social Survey (GSS). NORC conducted the field test in 2004 and gave the data gathered in the field test to the Census Bureau in 2005. The Census Bureau reported to GAO on June 22, 2005, that (1) approximately 270 foreign-born respondents were in the sample, and (2) preliminary results suggested few refused to answer the question or indicated they were offended by the topical content. DHS contributed to further developing, testing and evaluating the 3-card method by funding the field test. The Census Bureau has completed its analysis of the field test, and officially released the results to GAO and to the general public (see "A Brief Examination of Responses Observed While Testing and Indirect Method for Obtaining Sensitive Information," by Luke J. Larsen, Immigration Statistics Staff, U.S. Census Bureau, March 2, 2006). In its final report, the Census Bureau identified 237 foreign-born respondents, whom it designated as reporting (1) being born outside the United States, but not including respondents who reported they were born in Puerto Rico, and (2) neither parent as being born in the United States. The actions that the Census Bureau has undertaken are directly responsive to GAO's recommendation and are sufficient to close this recommendation. (Analyst's Note: On March 1, 2003, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was transferred from the Department of Justice to DHS; consequently this recommendation was redirected to DHS. GAO closed this recommendation for DHS in 2004, after DHS documented that it had funded the partial field test of the 3-card method in the 2004 GSS).

    Recommendation: To reduce the uncertainty associated with statistical estimates of relevant demographic concepts other than immigration flow, fill information gaps for specific legal statuses, and address fragmented reporting, the Commissioner of INS and the Director of the Bureau of the Census should together further develop, test, and evaluate the three-card method that GAO devised for surveying the foreign-born about their legal status.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: On September 29, 2011, the Director of DHS' Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS) said that OIS is willing to meet with the Census Bureau to devise a joint plan of research for evaluating census and survey data on the foreign-born, but the Census Bureau has not been responsive. GAO plans to meet with Census Bureau officials in October 2011 or thereafter to continue discussions about this open recommendation, which has been focused on evaluating coverage of the foreign-born. The Director noted, however, that the OIS Deputy Director and the Chief, Immigration Statistics Staff at the Census Bureau, have collaborated on an article on U.S. data sources of statistical information on the foreign-born, entitled "U.S. Data Sources on the Foreign Born and Immigration," which is going to be published in the International Migration Review, a refereed journal. This activity indicates that some collaboration between OIS and the Census Bureau on data sources on the foreign-born has occurred. According to the OIS Director, the last Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between OIS and the Census Bureau expired in 2003. The Director told GAO that OIS has continued to share information on numbers of legal permanent residents (LPRs) with the Census Bureau, as well as OIS estimates of the LPR and unauthorized populations, for example, in a presentation to the Census Bureau's Demographic Analysis Group, September 30, 2009. The Director said Census Bureau officials at the presentation asked if OIS had information on coverage of unauthorized immigrants, and exhibited interest in this issue. The Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS), DHS, is responsible for working with Immigration Statistics Staff (ISS) at the Census Bureau to jointly publish a document that represents or identifies "a plan of research for evaluating the quality of census and survey data on the foreign-born." During a September 13, 2010, meeting with GAO, the Director said he was concerned about: (1) coverage of the foreign-born, including data validation, which would help OIS validate assumptions in making estimates of the unauthorized immigrant population; (2) discrepancies between data on the foreign-born in the Current Population Survey (CPS) versus the American Community Survey (ACS), e.g., more naturalized citizens in the ACS than the CPS, and need for more information on foreign-born variables, including emigration; and (3) technical assistance with ACS data, e.g., how weights are calculated, record matching (by name, date of birth, and country of birth). During a November 8, 2008, meeting with Census Bureau officials, a GAO representative stated that if the Census Bureau could adequately explain why an evaluation of coverage of the foreign-born was not possible, GAO would close this open recommendation. In a February 28, 2008, letter, the Census Bureau's Associate Director for Demographic Programs sent GAO a letter which provides reasons why some approaches to such an evaluation are not possible; GAO reviewed this letter and responded with a letter dated February 5, 2009, identifying possible approaches to evaluating coverage of the foreign-born, and proposing a meeting to do so. GAO recognizes there may be difficulties in the Census Bureau and DHS producing a joint report of planned research, given the sensitivity of the DHS enforcement mission, but believes it is important for DHS and the Census Bureau to continue to work towards common goals re: improving information on the foreign-born population and subcategories within that population. GAO notes that evaluating coverage of the foreign-born and, to the extent possible, attaining sufficient coverage for making reliable and valid estimates may be the most important underlying data quality goals. GAO has already provided some guidance in how this recommendation might be fulfilled.

    Recommendation: To reduce the uncertainty associated with statistical estimates of relevant demographic concepts other than immigration flow, fill information gaps for specific legal statuses, and address fragmented reporting, the Commissioner of INS and the Director of the Bureau of the Census should together devise a plan of joint research for evaluating the quality of census and survey data on the foreign-born.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Office of the Secretary

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This report is based on GAO's recommendation in GGD-98-164 that "to reduce the uncertainty associated with statistical estimates of relevant demographic concepts other that immigration flow, fill information gaps for specific legal statuses, and address fragmented reporting, the Commissioner of INS and the Director of the Bureau of the Census should together either publish a joint report or closely coordinated reports that present information on population size, net change, and emigration." Since Fiscal Year 2001, the Census Bureau and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS) have continued to publish a variety of reports that resulted from their joint collaboration during planning meetings. These reports include (1) profiles of the foreign-born population in the United States; and (2) a series of Census Bureau Working Papers on evaluating components of international migration that are posted on the Census Bureau's Internet web site on such topics as foreign-born immigrants, quality of foreign-born and Hispanic population data, estimates of the foreign-born by migrant status, and temporary legal migrants. OIS has most recently published about half a dozen new research papers on legal immigration, naturalization, and refugee applicants and admissions to the United States. The research and publication of the foregoing reports demonstrates a continuing commitment by OIS and the Census Bureau that is fully responsive to and justifies closing this recommendation. (Analyst's Note: On March 1, 2003, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was transferred from the Department of Justice to DHS; consequently, this recommendation was redirected to DHS.)

    Recommendation: To reduce the uncertainty associated with statistical estimates of relevant demographic concepts other than immigration flow, fill information gaps for specific legal statuses, and address fragmented reporting, the Commissioner of INS and the Director of Bureau of the Census should together either publish a joint report or closely coordinate reports that present information on population size, net change, and emigration.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: As of September 30, 2011, GAO and Census Bureau officials have not met to continue discussions about this open recommendation, which has been focused on evaluating coverage of the foreign-born as part of a plan of research. On September 29, 2011, the Director of DHS' Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS) said that the Chief, Immigration Statistics Staff, and the OIS Deputy Director collaborated on an article on U.S. data sources on the foreign-born, entitled "U.S. Data Sources on the Foreign Born and Immigration," which has been accepted for publication in International Migration Review, a refereed journal, which indicates some collaboration on immigration statistics. GAO plans to meet with Census Bureau officials at a mutually agreeable time in October 2011 or thereafter, and anticipates this meeting will include discussion of (1) actions the Census Bureau may have taken, directly or indirectly, related to GAO's recommendation that the Census Bureau estimate undercoverage of the foreign-born population; (2) whether the Census Bureau anticipates actions or discussions of future plans that might be relevant to this recommendation (including long-term plans, such as would coincide with the 2020 decennial census); (3) whether there have been methodological advances, other changes, or anticipated developments that might facilitate such estimation; and (4) if Immigration Statistics Staff (or other components of the Census Bureau) are looking at hard-to-count population issues with respect to the foreign-born. We anticipate this meeting will also include discussion of letters we exchanged (in 2008 and 2009) concerning difficulties a Census Bureau official told GAO it anticipates in implementing some approaches to evaluating representation of the foreign-born. During a November 8, 2007, meeting with Census Bureau staff, a GAO representative said GAO would close this recommendation if the Census Bureau could adequately explain why research evaluating coverage of the foreign-born is not possible. GAO notes that GGD-98-164 discusses possible underrepresentation of the foreign-born in the decennial census and the Current Population Survey (CPS) on page 41-46. Similarly, pages 57-58 identifies research the Census Bureau could undertake to improve the quality of data used to make estimates of numbers of foreign-born persons. In a February 26, 2008, letter, the Census Bureau sent GAO a letter giving reasons why various types of coverage evaluation of the foreign-born are not possible or realistic. GAO's review indicated the letter explained why one category of approaches would not be feasible, did not consider other kinds of approaches (including those suggested by GAO), or that the Census Bureau was willing to further explore how coverage of the foreign-born could be evaluated, even on an experimental basis. In a February 5, 2009, letter, GAO identified alternative ways that efforts to explore coverage evaluation and possible innovations might be approached, and proposed a meeting with the Census Bureau to discuss this issue. Until a meeting can be arranged and these issues discussed, GAO believes it would be inappropriate to close this recommendation. Recent Congressional interest in estimates of the undocumented foreign-born population (see GAO-06-775) suggest a continuing need for such joint planning of research, particularly evaluating the coverage of the foreign-born. Importantly, GAO notes that during an Exit Conference on July 21, 2006, (involving GAO-06-775), several Census Bureau executives stated, in response to questions by GAO, that they were "unaware of any evaluations of coverage of the foreign-born by the Census Bureau, or anybody else," indicating a significant lack of reliable and valid information on this critical topic, and Census Bureau data may be open to challenge that it accurately represents the foreign-born population.

    Recommendation: To reduce the uncertainty associated with statistical estimates of relevant demographic concepts other than immigration flow, fill information gaps for specific legal statuses, and address fragmented reporting, the Commissioner of INS and the Director of the Bureau of the Census should together devise a plan of joint research for evaluating the quality of census and survey data on the foreign-born.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This report is based on GAO's recommendation in GGD-98-164 that the Commissioner of INS develop a new reporting format that communicates effectively to policymakers and interested members of the general public, information about trends in legal immigration flow and about the difference between the concepts of flow and net change. Subsequent to this recommendation, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS) redesigned its Internet web site (the URL is http://uscis.gov/graphics/shared/statistics/index.com), moved to an Internet-based publishing format, and is no longer publishing its Yearbook of Immigration Statistics in hard copy, giving users the option to download reports, data tables and similar information. Using this new format, OIS (1) published a greater depth of information than had been reported in the Yearbook and labeled individual research reports clearly as to content (e.g., "Annual Flow Report" and "Population Estimates" for naturalized citizens and legal immigrants); and, (2) in a January 2003 report posted on its Internet site, published new estimates of the illegal alien population for January 2000, which contains discussions of the differences between flow and net change. The OIS Director stated that in future research papers or reports in which net change would be discussed, OIS would, as appropriate to understanding data and concepts presented in such papers or reports, clearly distinguish the measurement of net change from flow. By more clearly reporting on the trends in legal immigration and distinguishing between the concepts of flow and net change, OIS responded directly to GAO's recommendation, and the recommendation is now closed. (Analyst's Note: On March 1, 2003, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was transferred from the Department of Justice to DHS; consequently, this recommendation was redirected to DHS).

    Recommendation: To eliminate confused reporting of data and estimates concerning immigration flow, the Commissioner of INS should more clearly report information about trends in legal immigration flow and about the difference between the concepts of flow and net change in the INS Yearbook--or develop a new reporting format that communicates effectively to policymakers and interested members of the general public.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: During a September 29, 2011, meeting, the Director of DHS' Office of Immigration statistics (OIS) said that OIS has not yet fully conceptualized an information typology of immigration statistics, but remains committed to doing so, and to publishing the typology in accordance with GAO's recommendation. Last year, the Director told us that DHS decided to extend the typology GAO proposed to include categories representing periods of less than one year. (GAO's recommendation pertained only to periods of more than one year, in accordance with the United Nations definition of residency.) The Director said that DHS would probably not publish a typology until both time periods (less than 1 year, and 1 year or more) were adequately defined and represented by data categories. GAO continues to believe that OIS is making progress on implementing this recommendation, and that publishing such a typology would be sufficient to close this recommendation. During the September 29, 2011, meeting, the OIS Director said that he had considered publishing the GAO typology, because doing so would close the open recommendation, but concluded that the GAO typology was not sufficient for DHS purposes and that it would be advisable for OIS to continue developing its own typology based on the work that GAO initiated in 1998. In the past, during an April 1, 2009, meeting, the Director said that OIS is continuing to make progress in developing the typology that GAO recommended, and that OIS is leading efforts to standardize definitions for reporting purposes at DHS by developing standard definitions of immigrant status and related concepts, started by focusing on enforcement statistics because of the immediate demand for more and better data on enforcement, and is working on the remaining terms. The OIS Director said he is committed to publishing and utilizing "an effective information typology . . . to clearly distinguish different demographic concepts and to determine which statistics can be fairly compared to others" during Fiscal Year 2008. It should be noted that most federal statistics on the foreign-born are produced by the Census Bureau or DHS and that this conceptual table will have continuing value for both agencies. The commitment of the OIS Director to publish an effective information typology is evident, but has been delayed. When the typology is published and utilized, this recommendation will be closed.

    Recommendation: To help correct undercounts, eliminate conceptual problems, and where possible, fill gaps for information on immigration flow, the Commissioner of INS should: (1) evaluate and, where feasible, improve data on flow; and (2) utilize an effective information typology (either the one put forward in table 2.1 of this report or an alternative designed by INS) to clearly distinguish different demographic concepts and to determine which statistics can fairly be compared to others.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Office of the Secretary

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This report is based on GAO's recommendation in GGD-98-164 that "to reduce the uncertainty associated with statistical estimates of relevant demographic concepts other that immigration flow, fill information gaps for specific legal statuses, and address fragmented reporting, the Commissioner of INS and the Director of the Bureau of the Census should together either publish a joint report or closely coordinated reports that present information on population size, net change, and emigration." Since Fiscal Year 2001, the Census Bureau and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS) have continued to publish a variety of reports that resulted from their joint collaboration during planning meetings. These reports include (1) profiles of the foreign-born population in the United States; and (2) a series of Census Bureau Working Papers on evaluating components of international migration that are posted on the Census Bureau's Internet web site on such topics as foreign-born immigrants, quality of foreign-born and Hispanic population data, estimates of the foreign-born by migrant status, and temporary legal migrants. OIS has most recently published about half a dozen new research papers on legal immigration, naturalization, and refugee applicants and admissions to the United States. The research and publication of the foregoing reports demonstrates a continuing commitment by OIS and the Census Bureau that is fully responsive to and justifies closing this recommendation. (Analyst's Note: On March 1, 2003, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was transferred from the Department of Justice to DHS; consequently, this recommendation was redirected to DHS.)

    Recommendation: To reduce the uncertainty associated with statistical estimates of relevant demographic concepts other than immigration flow, fill information gaps for specific legal statuses, and address fragmented reporting, the Commissioner of INS and the Director of Bureau of the Census should together either publish a joint report or closely coordinate reports that present information on population size, net change, and emigration.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census

 

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