The statistics that were bandied about as part of President Barack Obama’s immigration speech Thursday were impressive in their size.
They also hit close to home in Centre County, not because of a staggering immigrant population, but because of the complicated math problem that compiled them.
Jennifer Van Hook, a professor of sociology and demography at the Population Research Institute at Penn State, is part of the team that compiled the numbers behind the presidential policy.
“What we did was develop the method that was used to come with (those statistics),” said Van Hook. “It’s a pretty new method that was developed over the last three years or so. It allows us to really drill down and get some estimates of the unauthorized population.”
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It’s hard to count people that don’t really want to be counted. After all, if you can be deported for not having a piece of paper, you are probably careful about who knows that you don’t have it.
Van Hook and a team of others at the Migration Policy Institute used U.S. census data to extrapolate the information.
They started with a survey of income and program participation.
“It’s a small survey. It doesn’t have a lot of cases in it. You’re kind of limited in what you can do with it,” Van Hook said. “But you can get a sense of what this population looks like in terms of its characteristics.”
So they used it to connect the dots, coupling it with broader census data to get “rich detail.”
“We have this little snippet of truth about this population, and we use it to color in and fill in the blanks,” said Van Hook, who said that the numbers gave her group a chance not just to make calculations but shape policy. Randy Capps, the MPI director of research, worked on “how we framed those numbers,” giving them the context that the White House used to illustrate the scope of the issue.
“It is pretty remarkable,” said Van Hooks. “It’s kind of cool to know that we were the ones that came up with the method that was able to estimate how large each of those groups would be.”
The project was originally funded by the National Institutes of Health. Van Hook worked with people like Jim Bachmeier at Temple, Ofer Harel at the University of Connecticut and Donna Coffman of Penn State’s Methodology Center.
Now, they can sit back and see where the work goes from here.
“I’m kind of the person who likes to figure it out and then set it in motion, but let someone else handle the politics. I really feel like the immigration debate is so polarized, we just need solid information. ... I think they can lean on these with some confidence,” Van Hook said.