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A Capture–Recapture Approach to Estimation of Refugee Populations



The debate over immigration continues to be one of the most politically charged policy issues in the United States (US). Given the charged nature of this topic, it is vitally important to have reliable data on not only the number of US foreign nationals but also the characteristics of this extremely heterogeneous group – a population comprised not only of immigrants but also of refugees. There exist a small number of data sources for informing policy and practice at the national level. However, such data are often lacking for smaller geographical areas. This paper describes a recent effort to generate serviceable data on the immigrant and refugee population for a medium-sized metropolitan area in the US.

The objectives of this research were twofold. Our first goal was to provide local stakeholders with information to assist them with resettling and obtaining funding for immigrants and refugees. The second aim was to develop better techniques for tabulating diverse refugees and immigrants in a medium-sized community. By comparing and contrasting three data sources – that is, refugee services, public schools and a local health plan – we are able to generate estimates of the local refugee and immigrant population.

During the period from 2005 to 2007, we estimate the total number of immigrants and refugees in the community to be somewhere between 10,938 and 13,282. Although perhaps a bit on the high end due to methodological assumptions, these estimates seem plausible, based on previously cited figures for the region. While such estimates are valuable, a number of shortcomings related to the data prevent us from painting a more complete picture of these populations. We conclude this paper with a number of recommendations that will assist others in planning research designed to inform migration policy and practice in medium-sized metropolitan areas.

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