Tide of illegal immigrants now being reversed
Border crackdown and tough economic times in the US are seen as reasons.
Some 1.3 million illegal immigrants have left the United States since Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the summer of 2007. If the trend continues, according to a new study, the nation's illegal population will drop by half in the next five years.Skip to next paragraph
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Moreover, reports the Center for Immigration Studies, young Hispanic immigrants began heading south before the nation's economy did – a clue that what's driving the new outmigration is a stepped-up border and workplace enforcement, not a souring US job market.
The source of the report – a think tank with a record of opposing illegal and even some legal immigration – is controversial in immigrant communities. But its findings could help frame the debate in a new Congress and a new administration.
The key conclusion is that enforcement, not the economy, is driving the decision to self-deport.
"The dropoff in illegal immigration seems to occur before there is a runup in their unemployment rate," says Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies.
But Mr. Camarota also cites evidence of a link to the discussion in Congress about a path to legalization for undocumented workers. "From May to April  there is an actual uptick in the number of illegals in the country, which falls off after the legislation fails. It seems as if the discussion of legalization had some effect on the decision to come or go or both," he says.
Critics caution that little is known about a shadow workforce estimated at anywhere from 11 million to 20 million. "The problem is it's difficult to know what's causing a change like this," says Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, an organization of employers nationwide lobbying for comprehensive immigration reform. "But the one thing we know for sure is that the country is in a deep economic downturn, if not a recession, which means there's much less need for workers, especially those providing services for the middle class."
"Immigration is a market-driven phenomenon and that's why immigration is beneficial to the economy," she says. "When we need them, they come; and when we don't, they go home. Has enforcement had some effect? Perhaps. But there's no question that the economic downturn would in and of itself have a huge effect in attracting fewer [illegal immigrants] and sending more home."
When the Senate fell short on its last vote on comprehensive immigration reform in June 2007, the takeaway message for politicians on both sides of the issue was this: Secure the borders first. Since then, the Department of Homeland Security has beefed up security along the southern border and reported a spike in the deportation of illegal immigrants – 285,000 in fiscal 2007 – and nearly 100 employers of illegal workers facing jail sentences and very substantial fines, also a record.
By the end of this year, the US border patrol will be the largest in history and twice the size it was when President Bush came to office, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told a House panel on July 17.