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Missing Minorities? The Phases of IRCA Legislation and Relative Net Undercounts of the 1990 vis-à-vis 2000 Decennial Census for Foreign-born Cohorts


The quality of the decennial census of the United States is compromised by population undercount, which often misses immigrants and racial/ethnic minorities, thereby diminishing federal resources allocated to such groups. Using a modified version of demographic analysis and informed by the latest contributions of emigration scholarship, this research estimates net undercount for the 1990 census relative to the 2000 census by age, sex, year-of-entry, and place-of-birth cohorts. Ordinary least squares estimates suggest that males, recent arrivals, and cohorts aged 15–44 had higher relative net undercount for 1990 compared with 2000. Much higher relative net undercount was found for cohorts from Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean (excluding Cuba and Puerto Rico) who were ineligible for amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (i.e., those fitting the profile of an undocumented immigrant). Larger implications of these findings suggest that the political climate in which a person is embedded—particularly for persons who may feel threatened or marginalized by the government and/or the public—affects that person’s willingness to respond to the census.

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Fig. 1


  1. Puerto Ricans are excluded in this analysis.

  2. Correlation error of a capture-recapture study refers to the tendency for persons who are missed in census enumeration (the “capture” phase) also to be missed in the recapture phase.

  3. Ages 15–44 (vs. 18–49) are selected based on preliminary explorations of the data.

  4. By the end of 2000, an estimated 2.7 million immigrants were granted legal permanent residence through IRCA legislation (U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service 2002). In comparison, Passel and Woodrow (1987) estimated that 2,093,000 undocumented residents over the age of 13 were captured in the Current Population Survey in April 1983. Although Passel and Woodrow (1987) provided an imperfect measure of all undocumented immigrants eligible for amnesty, it is reasonable to assume that a majority of eligible immigrants were legalized under IRCA.

  5. Any one absence could not exceed 45 days, and the total absences could not exceed the sum of 180 days.

  6. Van Hook et al. (2006) and Passel et al. (2006) (referred to here as “Van Hook” and “Passel,” respectively) assumed that total non-follow-up (NFU) in the CPS was equal to the sum of NFU resulting from emigration, internal migration, death, and “other reasons.” Internal migration was estimated using the “residence one year ago” item on the CPS. Deaths were estimated using the National Health Interview Survey (Van Hook) or life tables (Passel). For Van Hook, NFU for “other reasons” for native-born persons was solved for by subtracting NFU for deaths and internal migration (emigration was assumed to be 0), and this rate was assumed to be identical for foreign-born persons. For Passel, NFU for “other reasons” was a function of matching-processing error and was estimated using a multivariate model. Emigration rates were thus solved for as the remaining probability that makes up total NFU, which was then adjusted using estimates of circular migration (based on Massey et al. (2002)).

  7. Schwabish (2009) used three linked administrative data sources provided by the Social Security Administration (i.e., the Detailed Earnings Records, Numerical Identification System, and Master Beneficiary Record) to identify foreign-born work histories. Workers who reported earnings for at least one year and subsequently have had at least two years of non-employment were assumed to have died or emigrated from the country. Although Schwabish (2009) estimated emigration rates for the documented foreign-born, the total emigration rate did not differ between the documented and undocumented populations when one controls for emigration rates by year of entry. Using separate emigration rates for undocumented residents and total emigration rates by year of entry (Passel et al. 2006), assuming that the counted undocumented population in 1990 was 2,176,000 (Woodrow-Lafield 1995) and that the number of undocumented who have entered before 1980 are negligible, I find that the rate of emigration for undocumented persons is nearly identical to that of all emigrants (2.1 vs. 2.08; results not shown).

  8. Because circular migrants are more likely to report a more recent year of entry upon their return to the United States (Redstone and Massey 2004), circular migrants (who are also more likely to be undocumented) are more likely to report a year of entry more recent than 1990 on the 2000 census. This will result in deflated counts in 2000 relative to 1990 for the cohorts of interest and work against the central hypothesis. Sensitivity analyses that follow account for circular migrants who were absent for the 1990 census but returned for the 2000 census.

  9. Cubans who establish permanent residence in another country lose all rights to reside in Cuba (see Cuba’s Ley No. 989/1961), and repatriation is restricted to select minors and persons over the age of 60 (with a few exceptions). Because of these limitations, it is assumed that only the proportions of Cuban cohorts who did not naturalize (drawing from U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service 1997, 2002) who entered after 1960 are at risk of emigration. That is, the ratio of naturalizing Cubans to all Cuban entrants (by decade) is multiplied by the sizes of the corresponding Cuban cohorts to estimate the Cubans at risk of emigration. Additionally, it is assumed that 1980 entrants are at risk of emigration as a result of the repatriation of the 1980 “Marielitos.”

  10. This approach is not negatively affected by cohorts with few or zero members.

  11. A total of 18 projected cohorts are not matched on all parameters for the corresponding observed cohorts. Because nonmatches are exclusive to older cohorts, nonmatches are presumably a product of age misreporting, and ages are adjusted such that matches could be made.

  12. When these dummy variables and their interaction effects are grouped to replicate Model 5, the error sum of squares is not significantly decreased in comparison with the larger model that includes separate (nongrouped) dummy and interaction variables.


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Thanks to David Swanson, Vanesa Estrada-Correa, Augustine Kposowa, J. Gregg Robinson, Robert Bozick, Trey Miller, Megan Beckett, Peter Brownell, Tori Velkoff, Michael Rendall, and Demography’s anonymous reviewers.

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Correspondence to Matheu Kaneshiro.

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Kaneshiro, M. Missing Minorities? The Phases of IRCA Legislation and Relative Net Undercounts of the 1990 vis-à-vis 2000 Decennial Census for Foreign-born Cohorts. Demography 50, 1897–1919 (2013).

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  • Undercount
  • Census
  • Foreign-born
  • IRCA
  • Demographic analysis