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And Counting . . . : Latest census resets U.S. population clock

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9:09am, February 20, 2002
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The 2000 census missed a little more than 1 percent of the nation's population, according to follow-up surveys conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. One of the biggest contributors to the error was a surge of undocumented immigrants to the United States in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, the undercount was far less than the bureau's researchers and others expected it to be.

The census forms filled out by U.S. residents early in 2000 recorded more than 274.6 million people. The Census Bureau's initial demographic analyses, conducted separately from the census, predicted there would be a population of about 281.4 million, or nearly 7 million more people than were actually recorded.

Adjustments to those figures that stem from one of the bureau's supplemental surveys, known as the Accuracy and Coverage Evaluation, suggest that the census undercounted the actual number of residents by only 3.3 million, says Robert E. Fay of the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington, D.C. He and other demographers discussed the nation's most recent population count last week in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Despite the overall reduction of the undercount estimate, the demographers found more undocumented immigrants than they had expected. Prior to the 2000 census, the statisticians thought the count would tally between 5 million and 6 million undocumented immigrants, says Jeffrey S. Passel, a statistician at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. His own current analysis suggests there are about 8.5 million undocumented residents. About 4.7 million of these, or 55 percent, can be traced back to Mexico. About 1.9 million come from other nations in Latin America, and 1.1 million come from Asia. Just a few hundred thousand of the undocumented immigrants arrived from Europe, Canada, and Africa. Many entered the United States during or after 1998, Passel notes.

The profile of the typical undocumented immigrant has changed over recent decades, says Frank D. Bean, a demographer at the University of California, Irvine. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a seasonal, temporary migration of workers into the United States, primarily to work in agriculture. In the 1980s and 1990s, the inflow became less seasonal as more immigrants took part in nonagricultural sectors of the economy such as the garment, hotel, and restaurant industries.

Bean attributes most of the dramatic boost in the rate of undocumented immigration in the late 1990s to two factors. The U.S. strong economy during these years encouraged immigrants to stay in the country. Also, an increased number of border patrol agents, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border, led to undocumented immigrants' fearing they couldn't return if they visited their homeland. This late-decade surge added about 500,000 residents to the United States each year and was the primary reason demographers undercounted the nation's population, Bean says.

Currently, the Census Bureau pegs the U.S. population at nearly 286.5 million, says Fay. The most recent data show about 1.2 percent population growth between the April 2000 census and July 1, 2001.

If this rate of increase holds up, the nation's population will breach the 300-million mark late this decade. However, census analysts speculate that changes in immigration patterns that result from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as well as from the recent downturn in the U.S. economy, may slow population growth somewhat.

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