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Illegal immigration down - because of economy or border control?

New data show the illegal immigrant population in the US plunged between 2008 and 2009. The report has sparked a debate about the reasons behind the decline and what it means for reform.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / February 11, 2010

Los Angeles

A report that America’s illegal immigrant population declined by almost 1 million in one year is fomenting hot debate about why it is happening, whether the statistics are correct, and how the numbers should affect US immigration reform.

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The number of illegal immigrants living in the United States dropped to 10.6 million in 2009 from 11.6 million in 2008, the sharpest decrease in 30 years and a second straight year of decline, according to a Department of Homeland Security report released this week.

Some immigration-control groups say the decline is happening primarily because of a buildup of border patrol and surveillance – and that the buildup should thus continue to further reduce illegal immigration. Other groups claim it is a result of the poor economy. Some say it is both, and still others doubt the statistics altogether.

“I think it’s all about the economy. There is no evidence that we are ‘controlling’ illegal immigration better than in the past,” says Tomás Jiménez, assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. “In fact, the success rate of those attempting to cross illegally hasn’t changed at all. If anything is ‘controlling’ illegal immigration, it’s the economy, and we aren’t exactly in control of that.”

Groups that want to restrict immigration are concerned that immigrant-rights groups will use the new report to argue that it’s now OK to legalize illegal immigrants who remain in the US or to allow their numbers to shrink through attrition.

“At a time when enforcement was beginning to pay dividends, the Obama administration has curtailed many aspects of enforcement – particularly in the workplace,” says Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). The report is excellent evidence that illegal immigration is controllable, says Mr. Mehlman. “In addition, the administration and congressional leaders have promoted the idea that an amnesty might be forthcoming. At a time when many illegal aliens might be contemplating returning home, the talk of amnesty is giving them a reason to remain."

Immigrant support groups, on the other hand, worry the new data will help stymie immigration reform.

“Now that the decrease statistics are out, ICE [Homeland Security's immigration enforcement agency], Republicans, and Democrats can take credit for their tough stance on immigration," says Randy Ertll, executive director of El Centro de Accion Social in Pasadena, Calif. "Future congressional candidates will use this as an example that their leadership in controlling immigration is working. However, we know that the current immigration laws are outdated and need to be revised/reformed.”