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Why immigration reform's simplest question has no easy answer (+video)

How many new foreigners will come to the country if the Senate immigration reform plan passes? One study says it could add more than a million a year, another says it will reduce the inflow.

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Then, CAP attempts to account for how the new immigration system – which includes new border-security and employment-verification measures – would affect illegal immigration. Citing a February analysis by two University of Minnesota scholars, CAP argues the US would slash illegal immigration down to just 10 percent of the average 680,000 illegal immigrants who entered the country annually from 2002 to 2009.

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Thus a 500,000 increase in immigration, minus a massive dip in illegal immigration, equals a relative decline in overall migration levels.

“The Senate bill provides a coherent and controlled admissions process that will ensure that those entering the United States come through orderly channels,” according to the analysis.

Other groups question many of CAP's assumptions.

Numbers USA, low-immigration advocates who are battling the bill tooth-and-nail, bases its estimates on both undocumented immigrants currently in the US and prospective immigrants waiting in backlogs that the Senate bill would clear, arguing that these people would formally be allowed to enter the US workforce and compete more directly with American workers.

Those two categories alone will expand US immigration by 15 million during the next decade, Numbers USA says. And that doesn't include the regular stream of 500,000 legal immigrants admitted each year. Add that up over 10 years – and assume that these immigrants will bring over family members – and the number could bulge another 10 million or more.

Indeed, determining how many newcomers might come to the US is devilishly hard – whether you are an advocate for paring back or expanding legal immigration.

Immigration skeptics like Senator Sessions and Numbers USA can't say with much certainty how many family members new US residents would bring with them, for example.

And CAP acknowledges that its baseline of 680,000 annual illegal border-crossers requires nuance. That number excludes the high immigration years from 1999 to 2001 but includes the extremely low years of illegal immigration due to the recent US recession. “Without reform, we would expect future unauthorized immigrant flows to rebound from the lower Great Recession period. This estimate should be taken as a conservative one,” CAP states.

But that number doesn't include how many illegal immigrants left the country, whether through deportation or voluntarily, each year. If that is factored in, the net annual illegal migration from 2002 to 2009 plummets to about 183,000. In 2008 and 2009, it was actually negative.

Moreover, counting illegal immigrants who leave the US raises the question of how to handle net legal migration -- how many permanent residents die or leave the country in a given year, for example. That quickly spirals into another host of challenges and complex calculations.

"In many ways," Mr. Wolgin says, "it's the best calculation we can make."

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