In the latest count, based on the 2000 Census and INS statistics, the Immigration and Naturalization Service reported that roughly 7 million immigrants, mostly Mexicans, were living illegally in the United States as of January 2000.
That's an increase over the 5.8 million illegal immigrants the INS said lived in the country as of October 1996. The population grew on average during the 1990s by 350,000 a year, about 75,000 more per year than reported in earlier INS estimates.
The totals are likely to trigger further outcry from groups seeking greater restrictions on immigration and tougher enforcement of immigration laws.
"These numbers again confirm ... that America has lost control of its borders," said Steve Camarota, research director for Center for Immigration Studies, a group that wants to curb immigration.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, the nation's immigration laws and enforcement have been under heightened scrutiny. But all 19 of the hijackers entered the country legally, with travel, student or business visas. Most of the visas were still valid at the time of the attacks.
John Gay, a lobbyist for the American Hotel & Lodging Association, said the numbers shouldn't be a surprise because "we all know how broken the system is." The association lobbies on behalf of businesses that rely on immigrant labor.
"If you've got an economy that is sucking that many workers into it and no reasonably legal means to bring them in, then it's broken," Gay said.
Mexicans made up 69 percent, or 4.8 million, of the illegal immigrant population in 2000, compared with 58 percent in 1990, the INS said.
The new estimates are based on the foreign-born population counted in the 2000 Census, combined with INS statistics on immigrants admitted to the country, deportations and numbers of nonimmigrant residents admitted, such as temporary workers.
Aside from Mexico, other countries that each was the source of more than 100,000 citizens illegally in the United States include El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Honduras, China and Ecuador.
The INS said California had the most illegal immigrants, about 2.2 million or 32 percent of the national total. States with the largest numerical increases in the 1990s were California, Texas, Illinois, Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina. California's share, however, has dropped from 42 percent of the total population in 1990, which reflects the growth of the Hispanic and immigrant population in other states over the past decade.
Some of the highest growth occurred in states where immigrants traditionally have not settled. Georgia's population was estimated at 228,000 in 2000, up from 34,000 in 1990, and North Carolina's rose from 26,000 in 1990 to 206,000 in 2000. The largest numerical increases, however, were in California and Texas.
The INS analysis also showed that about a third of the illegal immigrant population came from countries whose residents traditionally enter with visas and overstay.
By Suzanne Gamboa