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: Open

    Comments: On June 1, 2016, the Special Assistant for the Office of Policy at the Department of Homeland Security told GAO that it has initiated an examination of this recommendation to determine how it might be closed. As background, February 4, 2015, the Director of the DHS Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS) told GAO that DHS wants to publish an information typology of immigration statistics, and to publish the typology in accordance with GAO's recommendation, but has been hampered by a lack of staff, and that the OIS staff has decreased during the past few years from 18 to just 4 people. But in February 2016, the Chief, Office of Performance and Quality, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) of DHS told GAO that OIS has been rejuvenated; there is a new Director; and there are now approximately 15 staff. Since this recommendation was made, OIS staff have evidenced continuing interest in publishing an immigration typology that will be of real value to users and policy makers. For example, while GAO's recommendation pertained only to periods of one year, in accordance with the United Nations definition of residency, the OIS Director (now Chief, Office of Performance and Quality) reiterated 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 an earlier meeting, the OIS Director said that OIS had considered publishing only 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. The Director said that OIS has made progress in further developing the typology that GAO recommended, and that is leading efforts to standardize definitions for reporting purposes at DHS by developing standard definitions of immigrant status and related concepts. This has been done by focusing on enforcement statistics because of the immediate demand for more and better data on enforcement. The OIS Director said that OIS 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." 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

  2. 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

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On February 4, 2015, GAO contacted the Census Bureau's GAO and Audit Liaison to discuss the open joint recommendation in GGD-98-164 for the Director of the Bureau of the Census and the Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (redirected in 2003 to the Department of Homeland Security) to "devise a plan of joint research for evaluating the quality of census and survey data on the foreign-born." GAO made several suggestions on how such a study could be undertaken in a February 5, 2009, letter, to which GAO had not received a response, and in discussions with the Census Bureau indicated that evaluating coverage of the foreign-born was a key element of data quality. The Census Bureau's GAO and Audit Liaison said he would check on the status of that work. On March 26, 2015, the GAO and Audit Liaison told GAO that "we are completing a research paper that examines the coverage of the foreign-born in the American Community Survey," and on October 5, 2015, submitted a paper entitled "Demographic Analysis 2010: Estimates of Coverage of the Foreign-Born Population in the American Community Survey," Working Paper No. 103, June 2015. The GAO Managing Director, Assistant Director, and Analyst-in-Charge of the original engagement carefully reviewed Working Paper No. 103, and decided to close the open recommendation in GGD-98-164 as implemented. The reasons were that (1) the point of the recommendation was to evaluate the quality of data on the foreign-born, and coverage is a central issue, (2) the Census Bureau study addresses the coverage issue, and (3) publishing a completed study of coverage of the foreign-born went beyond GAO's original recommendation. Accordingly, GAO has closed this recommendation as implemented on October 15, 2015.

    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

  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 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 Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On February 4, 2015, GAO contacted the GAO and OIG Audit Liaison at the Census Bureau to discuss GAO's recommendation in GGD-98-164 that the Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, now part of the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS) "devise a plan of joint research for evaluating the quality of census and survey data on the foreign-born." In discussions with the Census Bureau during 2008-2009, an assessment of coverage of the foreign-born population was identified as a critical part of such research. The GAO and OIG Audit liaison said that he would check on the status of the work, and on March 26, 2015, reported that the Census Bureau is "completing a research paper that examines the coverage of the foreign-born population in the American Community Survey." On October 5, 2015, the GAO and OIG Audit Liaison sent GAO a copy of the Census Bureau report "Demographic Analysis 2010: Estimates of Coverage of the Foreign-Born Population in the American Community Survey," Working Paper No. 103, June 2015. GAO management reviewed the Census Bureau report, and determined that it was sufficient to close the open recommendation in GGD-98-1164 as implemented, for two reasons: (1) the point of the recommendation was to evaluate the quality of data on the foreign-born, and coverage is a central issue; and (2) the Census Bureau study addresses this issue. Accordingly, the recommendation was closed as implemented on October 15, 2015.

    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

  6. 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

  7. 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 Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

  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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