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Study offers clues about US illegal immigration patterns

The number of illegal immigrants in the US is no longer falling, a Pew survey finds. The report tracks the community's flight from tough illegal immigration laws and pursuit of job opportunities.

By Staff writer / February 1, 2011

Maricopa County Sheriff's Detention officers beginning the initial on-scene processing of a suspected illegal immigrant, in Wickenburg, Ariz., Jan. 23, 2007. A Pew survey has found that illegal immigrants have been fleeing places with tough illegal immigration laws in pursuit of job opportunities.

Ross D. Franklin/AP/File

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Atlanta

For the first time since the 1940s, Florida saw more people moving out of state in 2009 than migrating into its recession-struck suburbs. Included in that historic economic exodus were hundreds of thousands of the state's illegal immigrants.

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To be sure, states like Arizona and even some Virginia counties have also seen illegal immigrants move away as lawmakers enacted tough state illegal immigration laws, with some leaving the US altogether.

But even as the total number of illegal immigrants in the US fell from 12 million in 2007 to 11 million in 2008, a drop attributed to the sharp decline in the US economy, the numbers rose in the relatively prosperous states of Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, which enjoy a low cost of living and lower-than-average unemployment.

According to a new Pew Hispanic Center survey, the trend for those states continued from March 2009 through March 2010, a period which saw only a slight uptick in the number of illegal immigrants nationwide. The pattern strengthens the notion that job opportunity – or lack of it – still is the main motivation for unauthorized migrants plying America's underground job market.

The Obama administration's priorities have been shifting on the enforcement of immigration laws, ending dramatic work place raids and having immigration officers focus deportation proceedings primarily against those who have broken other laws. But enforcement actions, for their part, have more of a chessboard effect as mostly young Hispanic workers make risk-reward settlement decisions for themselves and their young families.

After falling from its 2007 peak, the number of illegal immigrants in the US rose from 11.1 million to 11.2 million between March 2009 and March 2010, according to the new Pew study. Because of a wide margin of error in counting illegals, Pew did not overtly call the count an increase over he previous year.

The Pew survey, based on Labor Bureau and Census records, shows an immigrant population in flux – highly mobile and opportunistic, but susceptible to the demands of both the US economy and society, says Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

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