The Trouble with Pew’s estimates of the “unauthorized” migrant population in Europe

Roberto Suro
6 min readNov 14, 2019


The Pew Research Center, where I once held a leadership position, published a report on November 13, 2019 entitled, “Europe’s Unauthorized Population Peaks in 2016, Then Levels Off.” The document is at best misleading, the product of an inappropriate statistical exercise. Given the reality of immigration politics in Europe, it is a made-to-order talking point for right-wing nationalists, echoing their attacks on asylum policies and on the migrants themselves. .

This is Pew’s first effort to estimate the “unauthorized” population in Europe by applying a terminology I authored in 2002 for use in the United States. The current report has led me to conclude that the terminology and aspects of the statistical method that underlie its application are anachronisms that fail to take into account fundamental changes in the nature of migration flow to both Europe and the United States. As such, and no doubt unintentionally, the very knowledgeable people at Pew, including several I value highly as friends and colleagues, have fallen into a perceptual trap with significant political consequences.

Pew’s critical error is to count as “unauthorized” people who have presented themselves to immigration authorities as required on arrival, have been identified, screened and registered in the lawful exercise of their right to seek asylum and have been granted permission to reside in their country of destination after an initial processing of that asylum claim. Nearly a quarter of the total “unauthorized” population in Europe, and closer to half in Germany, are asylum seekers, according to Pew’s account of its methodology. The estimate claims to be a statistical snapshot of this population on December 31, 2017, but as of that date these individuals, with few exceptions, had been granted documents attesting to their right to reside in these countries legally without fear of deportation and in many cases to work and receive social benefits.

Pew counts these individuals as “unauthorized” because they had not yet been granted permission to remain as residents on a permanent basis. Germany and other European countries have several different degrees of asylum, including categories that grant protection for a period of years pending developments in their countries of origin and other matters. Moreover, in Europe as in the US, final disposition of asylum cases can take years due to backlogs and appeals, but those with pending cases are fully authorized to remain in the meantime. And, there is another category of persons whose claims have been denied, a small number in the 2017 Pew European estimates but more by now, who are not subject to deportation either by virtue of explicit administrative decisions or the prioritization of enforcement resources, a situation that occurs in the United States as well.

In an exercise of highly subjective — and, to my mind, ill-informed — speculation, Pew concludes the individuals it observed in 2017 will never be granted permanent status in the future and that they will be subject to removal some day and so they should be counted as “unauthorized” in the present. This prognostication is as highly freighted politically as it is unjustified on any empirical basis. But, it is even more biased and inflammatory as a historical narrative.

Almost the entire increase in the “unauthorized” population in Europe that peaked as of 2016, according to Pew, is the result of the extraordinary surge of Syrians, more than a million, who came across the Aegean from Turkey from the summer of 2015 to the spring of 2016 to seek refuge. By retroactively categorizing about half of those migrants as “unauthorized,” Pew is offering its statistical support to narratives that characterize that event as illegitimate, an abuse of Europe’s humanitarian values, a criminal effort to exploit social services and rich labor markets, a cynical abuse of the asylum system, a willing dilution of European identity by globalists, a pollution of Europe’s racial purity, etc.

The methodology is explained in the fine print, and Pew even offers estimates minus the asylum seekers in an appendix. But, that does nothing to change the report’s deliberately attention-grabbing conclusion, its analytical perspective and the way it will be used for political purposes.

Pew’s US estimates of the “unauthorized” are vulnerable to the same manipulation. They too include asylum seekers and produce the same statistical support for a demagogic portrayal of current migration.

In the US, more than a million asylum seekers are sitting in an immigration court backlog awaiting adjudication of their claims, a number that has doubled since President Trump took office. These people have identified themselves to immigration officials, registered an asylum claim and have passed a “credible fear” interview with a finding that their claim is worthy of full consideration. By counting them as “unauthorized,” Pew fully embraces the Trump administration’s portrayal of the underlying migration phenomena as illegitimate even criminal. In the US asylum seekers account for a much smaller share of the Pew estimates than in Europe, about 10%, but that does not lessen the weight of the statistical fallacy. They are “unauthorized” only in the eyes of the beholders, in this case Pew and Trump. The result is a highly biased data point.

In my view the problem with the Pew estimates is that they fail to account for new developments in migration flows to the United States and Europe.

It was my great fortune to have been asked by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2001 to create the Pew Hispanic Center and to then be part of the management committee that merged that center and several other stand-alone projects into the Pew Research Center in 2004. When the Pew Hispanic Center began publishing estimates of the “unauthorized migrant” population in 2002, the target was made up overwhelmingly of Mexican labor migrants who had either entered the country illegally or who had overstayed a legal entry and who would be subject to removal if apprehended. I am proud to say those estimates served an important and constructive role in repeated policy initiatives to legalize this population from 2004 to 2014. (I left Pew in 2007 to take a position on the faculty of the University of Southern California.)

Both the migration phenomena and the focus of policy debate have shifted in the past few years, but Pew’s methodology has not.

The number of cases in the immigration court backlog did not exceed 200,000 until 2009 and only crossed the 400,000 mark in 2014, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, a source of pure data, just the numbers, on immigration. As such, asylum seekers were a small fraction of the total population which we were measuring in the 00’s which stood at about 11 million people, plus or minus, throughout that period.

But, in the past decade, as Pew has ably chronicled, migration flows to the United States have changed. Mexican labor migration outside legal channels has been negligible for a decade and meanwhile the number of Central American asylum seekers has increased dramatically in the past five years. In Europe, the 2015–16 events and subsequent arrivals of asylum seekers represent an even more singular event compared to the very small ongoing irregular labor migrations.

The Pew Research Center remains committed to its version of strict political neutrality, portraying itself as a “fact-tank” that produces data with no spin, no advocacy and only as much analysis as is necessary to make sense of the numbers. (The exercise is fraught and one of the reasons I left, but that is another story.) Taking the institution at its word about its intention, the distortions created by the current report on the “unauthorized” population in Europe should be occasion for a reconsideration of the methodology and terminology.

First there is a technical issue.

Both in the United States and in Europe, the population of migrants who are not citizens or legal permanent residents now comprises several categories of individuals with different kinds of status in national immigration systems. Some are indeed “unauthorized” in that they have no legal basis to reside in those countries and would be subject to removal with little recourse if apprehended and put in proceedings. But, there is also this large, and in the United States rapidly growing, population of persons who have presented asylum claims and have been awarded permission to remain in the country until those claims are fully adjudicated. So it is technically a mistake to apply “unauthorized” as a blanket term, and it retrospect it was a technical mistake when I first did it nearly 20 years ago.

But, now there is a much graver issue about how the data is communicated.

The nature of the migration phenomena that produce asylum seekers as well as the laws governing migration and the processes to administer it are all the subject of vociferous, brutally-polarized, high-stakes political debates in the United States and across Europe. Pew is taking sides in that debate when it counts asylum seekers as “unauthorized migrants.”

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Roberto Suro holds a joint appointment as a professor of journalism and public policy at the University of Southern California. He is currently the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Humanities at the American Academy in Berlin.



Roberto Suro

professor of journalism and public policy at the University of Southern California