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.

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.

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.”

The report arrived at its estimate of the illegal population by comparing the total foreign-born population in the US with the legal resident population, and subtracting the difference. The data used to estimate the legal resident population were from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), while the source for estimates of the total foreign-born population was the American Community Survey (ACS) of the US Census Bureau.

The report cautioned that changes within the census survey could have affected the results. But some suggest there are other reasons to be skeptical of immigration data.

“There are lots of scholars who do work on immigration, and nobody can give accurate figures,” says Katharine Rodriguez of Coalición de Derechos Humanos, in Tucson, Ariz., a grass-roots organization that promotes respect for human/civil rights. In particular, she criticizes DHS data on people entering the US illegally.

“I personally do not put much faith in the numbers that are put out simply because they are a mere reflection of apprehensions, not actually crossings.” The news media, she says, often make the mistake of equating "apprehensions" with "people," whereas one individual can be apprehended multiple times.

The number of illegal immigrants in the US decreased both because of the poor economy and better border enforcement, says DHS spokesman Matt Chandler.

“Most unauthorized immigrants come to the United States for employment. When employment opportunities shrink, as they have during the current recession and particularly in those industries employing large numbers of unauthorized immigrants, then it would not be unexpected to see a decrease in the unauthorized population," says Mr. Chandler. He adds, "DHS believes that the unprecedented resources the department has devoted to deterring crime and smuggling at the Southwest border, as well as smarter and more effective immigration law enforcement the department is implementing across the country, are also contributing factors to this decline.”

Other researchers note that it is important to take into account the types of immigrants who are in the US and the economic circumstances of their countries of origin. Mexican government census data showed that 226,000 fewer people left Mexico in 2009 than in the previous year.

“We have to ask who is less likely to remain during hard times, and who is less likely to leave during a downturn,” says Ajay Chaudry, director of the Center on Labor, Human Services and Population for The Urban Institute. It’s likely that immigrants who have lived in the US for many years and those with families and children here are the most rooted and least likely to leave, he says.

“The illegal immigrant population is not a homogeneous population," says Mr. Chaudry. "First of all, it includes stayers and leavers, long-termers and recent arrivals, etc., and the country at some point will have to address the significant-sized population who have been here for some time, for all intents and purposes live here, work here, and have children here now, and what can and should be done to bring those families out of the shadows and into the mainstream of American life.”


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