ECONOMIC SCENE: How recession has changed the immigration debate

Politics, economics, demographics all come into play.

Bill Serne/ St. Petersburg Times/ Newscom/ File
Migrant workers pick tomatoes in Immokalee, Fla., in this March photo. Immigrants hold a majority of jobs in picking produce, though US-born workers have a majority in other areas traditionally seen as left to immigrants, such as housekeeping. The recession could change the immigration debate, as illegal immigration falls and it disproves the idea there are some jobs Americans won't take.

The deep US recession has had one effect that polls say would please most Americans: Illegal immigration is falling.

More illegal immigrants are leaving. Fewer people are sneaking in – perhaps 200,000 a year instead of 500,000 in recent years, estimates Steven Camarota, an economist at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. Thus, America’s illegal population has fallen from about 12 million in February 2007 to almost 11 million this February, he calculates.

So when immigration becomes a hot topic again – as it will, inevitably – will the recession have shifted the terms of the debate?

In some ways, yes. The US slump proves that immigration is sensitive to economic conditions. It also weakens the argument of pro-immigration forces that there are some jobs Americans won’t do. Mr. Camarota finds that claim “absurd on its face.”

He points to a newly available sampling of 4.7 million workers in 465 occupations, a massive survey that asks respondents whether they were born in the US. The US-born already hold a clear majority of jobs people often regard as being left to immigrants, such as housekeeping and grounds-maintenance workers. Only in picking fresh produce do immigrants hold a small majority.

Of course, economics is just one component of the immigration debate. Politics plays a huge role.

For example: some 1 million immigrants become US citizens every year. About 300,000 more of them become Democrats than Republicans.

That advantage could be one reason that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, has blocked several immigration-control bills from coming to the floor, says Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a nonprofit advocate for cutting immigration.

Similarly, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada has been “aggressively pushing amnesty” for illegal immigrants, says Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, another Washington group urging limits on immigration.

Critics sometimes call various forms of amnesty “a Democratic registration program.”

The third component of the debate – the demographics – is vital in the long run. In the 1990s, the US had its biggest 10-year jump in population in its history – 32.7 million – and the fastest growth rate since the 1960s. The growth rate has slowed this decade, but the US is still on track to add some 28 million residents.

That’s the elephant in the room, Mr. Beck says. If President Obama really wants to reach his goals of energy independence and lower carbon emissions, he will have to restrain immigration, he argues. (US-born Americans have a birthrate slightly below the replacement level.) Otherwise, the projected population rise from 307 million today to 439 million in 2050 will swamp his intentions – and heighten other challenges, such as congestion and education.

So far, though, Mr. Obama has shown no enthusiasm for braking that growth, Beck and Mr. Stein say. Obama has said he would like to get illegal immigrants “out of the shadows and on a pathway to citizenship.” The one big change he’s made from the last years of the Bush administration is that instead of raiding plants to round up illegal immigrants, he wants to focus pressure on their employers.

The president plans to hold a key meeting with congressional leaders on immigration reform on June 17. The session is expected to clarify (at least a little) the White House’s position.

Meanwhile, a multimillion-dollar fundraising battle has broken out between pro-amnesty and antiamnesty groups.

It will, warns Stein, be “vitriolic, vicious.”

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