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With fewer jobs, fewer illegal immigrants

The US recession and stricter law enforcement are keeping many Hispanics from coming.

By Brian WhitleyContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / December 30, 2008

Not-so-green grass: A man peeks through the border fence at Tijuana, Mexico. The recession has reduced illegal migration to the US.

Dario Lopez-Mills/AP


The economic downturn – along with more aggressive enforcement – is reducing the flow of illegal immigrants to the United States.

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Not only are fewer people – mostly Hispanics – slipping into the United States, they're getting fewer jobs. New data shows that Latino participation in the labor force – normally among the highest – has dropped along with a decline in new arrivals.

"The picture has definitely changed," says Randy Capps, a demographer at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, though he cautions that it's too early to say whether the changes are permanent. "Unauthorized Hispanic immigrants are fairly responsive to job markets." [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Capps' name.]

Tougher enforcement and the construction of a new border fence may also be playing a role. The number of illegal aliens removed or returned home this year rose 20 percent compared with a year ago, according to a Department of Homeland Security statement. There was also a 27 percent increase in arrests made while raiding workplaces by the US Immigration and Customs.

The Border Patrol, which added 6,000 agents since 2006, has seen a steady decline in the number of people it has caught trying to cross the border.

Exactly how far-reaching the current shifts in the Latino immigrant population are is unclear, and may turn on the extent of the recession and the immigration policies of the new administration.

Downturn hits Latinos hard

A recent report by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, found that the proportion of Latino immigrants employed or seeking work in the US fell for the first time since 2003. It declined from 72.4 percent in the last quarter of 2007 to 71.3 percent in the last quarter of 2008.

The drop is "small but significant," says the report's author, Rakesh Kochhar. As a percentage, more Hispanic immigrants are active in the labor force than other Americans.

The report also found that the unemployment rate for all Latinos was 7.9 percent in the third quarter of 2008, compared with 5.7 percent during last year's third quarter. The unemployment rate for the total US workforce is 6.1 percent.

It's not clear whether immigrant workers who have dropped out of the labor force are returning home or have just temporarily given up looking for jobs.

The decline in labor force participation is strongest among Latinos who arrived since 2000, according to Pew. Mexico's central bank reported in early 2008 that remittances had flatlined at about $24 billion after several years of large increases.