Experts eye decline, shift in immigration

The number of immigrants – at least illegal ones – entering the United States has apparently been declining since Sept. 11.

But the number of immigrants from the Middle East is swelling, according to a study by Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. By 2010, the number of post-1965 immigrants and their children from that troubled region could reach 4 million. Most will be Muslim, well-educated, relatively affluent – and voters.

"This is going to matter," says Mr. Camarota.

Assuming that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute drags on, Washington politicians will face a gradually more powerful voting bloc that will likely be more sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians.

Usually supporting the Israeli side today are 6 million Jews in the US, a group whose numbers are thought to be stagnant.

The overall Middle East immigrant population reached nearly 1.5 million in 2000, up from 200,000 in 1970.

Many experts keep a close watch on the inflow of immigrants, which, beyond such political implications, has a direct, major impact on the workforce, the housing market, and the economy.

The US has a population of 285 million, of which about 32 million, or 11 percent, are foreign born. Naturalized citizens number about 12.5 million, or 40 percent of those who are foreign born.

In the 1991-2000 decade, legal immigrants numbered 9.1 million. The Census Bureau also estimates the illegal-alien population in the US to be about 8.7 million. Researchers at Northeastern University put the number as high as 11 million.

The illegal-alien population has been rising 400,000 to 500,000 a year.

This year, Camarota guesses, illegal entries may drop by 100,000 to 200,000 people. An Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) spokesman, Russ Bergeron, agrees that "undocumented entries" are down. But he doesn't put a number on that.

One factor is the weaker US economy. There are fewer jobs for illegals. The word gets back to Mexico and elsewhere fast.

Another element is a major effort in Washington to clean up Social Security records. Those of undocumented workers often do not square with the agency's files, and some may be losing their jobs as a result.

Also, fewer foreigners are trying to enter the country legally. That number is down about 16 percent since September from the same period a year before. Some of those admitted legally to attend school or work overstay their visas illegally.

Further, more of those trying to get in using false documents or other means are rejected. "More of them are caught," says Mr. Bergeron. In June, for instance, the number of inadmissibles was 60,493, up 8 percent from June in 2001.

At the Southwestern border, the number of those caught trying to sneak into the US between October and June was down 30 percent from the same months in 2001, to 702,328. Mr. Bergeron suspects stepped up INS border controls are discouraging illegals from trying to enter.

Yet Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado, back last week from a three-day tour of the Arizona border with Mexico, says some areas are so overrun with illegal immigrant traffic that US troops are needed to augment the Border Patrol.

Mr. Tancredo, head of the Immigration Reform Caucus in the House, was told that more OTMs (other than Mexicans), including some from the Middle East, are being spotted by border patrols.

Most Middle East immigrants have entered the US legally. Only about 150,000 are illegals, Camarota estimates. And most of those just overstayed their visas. They didn't try to dash across the border.

That pattern may be changing a bit as immigrants face stricter inspections at legal ports of entry. This bothers Tancredo. Lax border controls, he says, worsen the danger to the nation from potential terrorists.

Though Tancredo's Immigration Reform Caucus has grown from 16 to 64 members since Sept. 11, neither the Republican nor the Democrat leadership is willing to take strong measures to restrain immigration, even against illegals.

It's political. Democrats hope to win the allegiance of the burgeoning number of voters of Latin American origin. Last month, House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri announced a bill that would grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants who have lived in the US for at least five years and worked for two years.

Tancredo calls the bill "a perfect example of pandering to the Hispanic voting bloc." The bill, he adds, tries to "one-up" the Bush administration's proposal of a guest-worker system with eventual legal residency for millions of illegals.

Tancredo maintains Republicans are catering to those businesspeople in such areas as restaurants, meat packers, and landscaping firms that often employ a large number of illegals.

In the past two years of the Clinton administration and under the Bush White House, the INS has not made a serious effort to prevent employers from hiring illegal immigrants. Raids are out.

"Everybody knows it's a joke," says Paul Donnelly, a consultant on immigration policy in Hyattsville, Md.

If the number of illegals does slip, as Camarota predicts, it could force some firms to pay enough for their often tough, undesirable jobs to attract American-born citizens. Instead of $7 an hour, a meat packer might have to pay $15.

Despite Sept. 11, people from such nations as Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, and Lebanon are still keen to enter the US with its prosperity and freedom. Each year, the US awards 50,000 green cards to those who win a drawing in a visa lottery. Last time, 1.5 million from the Middle East region applied.

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