FactCheck: Are there really only 10,000 undocumented Irish in the USA?

The oft-quoted figure of 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants in the US has been disputed recently. Is it really much, much lower than that?


COUNTING UNDOCUMENTED immigrants is difficult by definition. If you’re living in a country illegally, you don’t always want to broadcast that fact. In the UK, for example, the most recent credible estimate for the number of “irregular residents” is a decade old, and isn’t particularly exact: researchers said that the number might lie anywhere between 417,000 and 863,000.

So it’s not a surprise to see an argument flare up about the number of undocumented Irish immigrants living in the United States. For years, everyone was happy enough to quote a figure of around 50,000.

The number was part of the furniture, as it were, every time the issue came up. But now we’re being told that’s way off, and the actual number of people in this position could be as low as 10,000. What’s going on here?

The claim

There are far fewer unauthorised Irish immigrants to the United States than previously thought: between 10,000 and 15,000, rather than 50,000.

What was said

John Deasy TD, the government envoy to the US Congress working on the issue of the undocumented Irish, said early this month that the number of people covered by his remit was “closer to 10,000”. This is how it’s put in an Irish Times report; we don’t have his exact form of words. Minister for the Diaspora Ciarán Cannon confirmed to the Irish Examiner that “John seems to be suggesting it’s somewhere closer to 10,000”.

The source

Deasy was “citing research from the Pew Research Center in Washington” giving a range of between 10,000-15,000, again according to the Irish Times.

50,000 undocumented Irish: a zombie statistic?

Debate over the numbers is nothing new. As far back as 1999, ministers were saying that “no reliable figures are available” – the fundamental problem being that US Census Bureau surveys don’t ask whether or not people are undocumented. At various times in the noughties, the government referenced a US government estimate of just 3,000, pointed to Irish-American organisations for a figure of “9,000 to 10,000”, as well as stating a “true figure” of 25,000.

But for the past decade or so, 50,000 has been the number used by politicians of all parties. The problem is that we haven’t been able to find any hard evidence to back it up.

It may simply have been carried over from the 1980s and 1990s, when 50,000 was a credible estimate. “In the late 1980s, up to 50,000 Irish are estimated to have been in the US as illegals,” according to a 2013 report by academics at University College Cork, which notes that campaigners put the number even higher. 48,000 people received Morrison visas in the early 1990s.

But the authors of that report said that the true figure these days “is probably a fraction of this amount”. One of the authors, Dr Piaras Mac Éinrí, now goes so far as to call the 50,000 number “pure invention… without a shred of evidence to support it”.

90096518_90096518 The hardship facing undocumented Irish immigrants in the US and their families continues to rankle as an issue, no matter the number involved. This appeal for help took place outside Leinster House in 2007. Sasko Lazarov / Sasko Lazarov / /

Searches of the Dáil records and the Irish Times archives indicate that this number may – we’ll put it no more strongly than that – have been put into general circulation in 2004 by Fine Gael’s Jimmy Deenihan, who went on to become Diaspora Minister between 2014 and 2016.

Deenihan told Fact Check “that was the figure I was getting from the various [Irish emigrant] centres around North America at that time… that was the figure too that was coming from the embassies, from Washington – that was the generally agreed figure. I never asked how that was determined, but that was the figure that was used extensively”. Certainly it appears frequently in the records mentioned from 2004 onwards.

Where, then, are we getting these much lower figures?

American estimates

The Pew Research Centre confirmed to FactCheck that its 10,000-15,000 figures are “unpublished estimates” – in other words, you won’t find them laid out on its website. Instead, it provided us with some information about the calculations.

They’re fairly complicated. But the basic idea is to first find the total number of Irish people in the United States, and then subtract the number of people legally resident. What’s left over is the undocumented.

Step one: The total number of Irish citizens across the water is estimated using the American Community Survey, which is sent to several million US households – around 1% of the population – every year.

Step two: Data from the Department of Homeland Security shows how many people are granted the right to live legally and permanently in the country. (Only around 1,600 Irish people a year become permanent residents.)

The upshot is that “the individual year estimates for 2005-2015 for Ireland are either 10,000 or 15,000” undocumented immigrants – the difference between the legal population and the total population.

These numbers aren’t all that precise: they’re rounded to the nearest 5,000, with a margin of error of about the same amount.

We aren’t able to replicate these calculations, partly because they include adjustments to try to account for people not captured by the American Community Survey. However, the Pew Research Centre isn’t the only organisation to produce estimates.

The Migration Policy Institute says that “the Irish unauthorised population in the US is at most 16,000 people”.

Again, this isn’t a precise figure, and it’s not based on a simple headcount. The Migration Policy Institute also uses statistical techniques to try to work out which immigrants in the American Community Survey are undocumented (remember, the question isn’t asked directly). These, too, are complicated – put very simply, the demographers used a 2008 survey which did ask some basic questions about immigration status, and mapped the results onto the much bigger American Community Survey.

The Migration Policy Institute doesn’t actually produce an estimate for Irish immigrants specifically, after all that. It has estimates for the top 50 origin countries only. Number 50 – South Africa – has produced an estimated 16,000 unauthorised immigrants in the US. On that basis, the Institute says that the figure for Ireland must be something less than 16,000.

A third source uses a different methodology again to produce a top 25 of countries producing unauthorised immigrants. Ireland doesn’t make an appearance, and the bottom of the 25 is Ghana with around 32,000. So this study suggests that there are fewer than 32,000 unauthorised Irish in the US - how many fewer, again, we just can’t say.

People Leaving Ireland Irish people seeking information on emigrating during the recession in 2010. Sasko Lazarov / Sasko Lazarov / /

Irish estimates

These are all American estimates. There doesn’t seem to have been any equivalent research carried out by the Irish government. As mentioned above, in recent years ministers have gone with the 50,000 figure.

That said, Simon Coveney qualified this a little when asked about the issue in late June, mentioning “up to 50,000 undocumented Irish in the US” [our emphasis]. And Diaspora Minister Ciarán Cannon, when asked about Deasy’s claim last week, said that “the figure that has been suggested by both our own organisation, our own embassy staff over there, was somewhere in the order of 40,000”.

The Department of Foreign Affairs told us that the Pew Research Center and Migration Policy Institute are “both respected bodies”, but “based on their experience on the ground, many Irish Community organisations in the US estimate the number to be higher, including in their estimate significant numbers of Irish citizens from Northern Ireland who are undocumented”.

Irish-American estimates

Niall O’Dowd, a well-known campaigner for the undocumented Irish and founder of the IrishCentral website, disputes the Pew Research estimate.

O’Dowd told RTÉ to look at data from the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on how many people fail to leave that country after being there on a temporary visa. He’s correct that 2,569 Irish people overstayed last year – and that’s not counting people who might have entered by a land border. Multiply that by years or decades, and you can see why 10,000 would feel like an underestimate.

The problem with this approach, as Jeffrey Passel of the Pew Research Center pointed out on the same programme, is that these figures only capture overstays within any one financial year. The US financial year runs from October to September. DHS says that there were around 630,000 overstayers (of all nationalities) as of 30 September 2016, but only 540,000 by 10 January 2017 – and the number of people belatedly leaving “continues to grow”.

So if you went to the USA on a J1 visa in June 2016 and stayed illegally until Christmas, based on these figures you are an undocumented Irish immigrant still in America. In reality, you might be back home in Cahirciveen.

These figures for late departures aren’t broken down by nationality. So O’Dowd is right that we don’t really know whether these 2,569 Irish people eventually left or whether they remained, undocumented, in the US. But it does mean that they aren’t a robust method for estimating the flow of undocumented Irish immigrants – still less the stock at any one time.

That’s not to dismiss the views of Irish-American community organisations that are close to the issue. The Coalition of Irish Immigration Centres, for instance, gives the 50,000 figure. But neither it, nor O’Dowd, nor several individual immigration centres responded to email requests for more information about their position. That makes it hard for us to give it the same weight as the research carried out by academics.

O’Dowd’s point that when it comes to undocumented immigrants, “everything is an estimate”, has some force. There are no certainties here. But it’s important not to let that blind us to the research consensus that 50,000 is in the wrong ballpark.

And you might well agree with the Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman who emphasised to FactCheck that “a lower estimate of the number of Irish undocumented does not diminish the severity of the problem for the individuals and families affected on both sides of the Atlantic”. He also said that a lower estimate “will not detract from the priority the Government accords to this issue or its ongoing commitment to resolving it”.


There’s no official database or survey that counts undocumented immigrants in the United States. Credible research institutions, using different methodologies, have come up with statistical techniques to estimate the number.

For a relatively small population like undocumented Irish immigrants, it’s hard to be particularly exact with those estimates. But there is a clear view – among both American and Irish academic experts – that the previously accepted figure of 50,000 is too high. We’ve been unable to find any particular reason to trust that figure in the first place – and even if it were reliable when first coined, it’s probably now out of date.

While we can’t be completely certain, the best available research evidence weighs in favour of John Deasy’s claim that the undocumented Irish population in America is around 10,000 to 15,000 people.

Verdict: mostly TRUE.

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