U.S. Illegal Immigrant Population Declines for First Time in 20 Years

As Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell moves ahead with a proposal that would grant Virginia State Police troopers civil immigration law enforcement powers and Frederick County, Md., votes down a measure that would have had the county asked the Maryland General Assembly to adopt a strict, Arizona-style illegal immigration enforcement policy, an independent research group says the number of illegal immigrants in the United States has dropped for the first time in 20 years.

In addition to increased border enforcement, the economic downturn has reduced the number of illegal immigrants from Mexico, Latin America and elsewhere crossing the border to find jobs, according to the Pew Hispanic Center's analysis.

The study, based on census data, estimates that 11.1 million illegal immigrants lived in the U.S. in 2009 -- a decrease of about 1 million, or 8 percent, from a peak of 12 million in 2007, before Arizona intervened with its new enforcement measures. That puts the number of illegal immigrants about where it was in 2005.

The 11.1 million is slightly higher than the Homeland Security Department's estimate of 10.8 million. The government uses a different census survey that makes some year-to-year comparisons difficult.

States in the Southeast and Southwest saw some of the biggest declines in the number of illegal immigrants from 2008 to 2009, including Florida, Nevada and Virginia.

An increase in unauthorized immigrants leaving the U.S., by deportation or for economic reasons, also may have played a factor in the decrease.

The Frederick County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 against the measure asking the General Assembly to an immigration law like Arizona's. State Delegate Charles Jenkins said he will try to introduce the measure to the General Assembly himself.

In Virginia, Prince William County has been at the forefront of strict illegal immigration enforcement. A law there allowing police to check immigration status of people who are arrested went into effect in July 2008. County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart has attributed a significant drop in violent crime and a 15-year low in overall crime in the county to the controversial law, saying it has sent illegal immigrants fleeing to neighboring counties. That's insufficient for Stewart, who has mounted a campaign for commonwealth-wide illegal immigration law that would give police more power to identify and deport illegal immigrants, impose harsh penalties for illegal immigrants, and crack down on day labor and human smuggling.

On Monday, McDonnell rejected a request by the Virginia Alliance for Sensible Community Policing Efforts that his administration not pursue civil immigration law-enforcement powers, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

"We are particularly concerned about the severe chilling effect that descends on immigrant communities, and especially on immigrant crime victims and witnesses, if they perceive that law enforcement is to be feared rather than trusted, and the subsequent impact on crime reporting and public safety in Virginia," the alliance said in a letter to McDonnell.

McDonnell asked the federal Department of Homeland Security in early August for an agreement that would allow troopers to perform some of the functions now performed by federal immigration officers.

The agreements with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials permit participating state and local police to question and detain illegal immigrants suspected in crimes. If approved, selected state troopers would be trained and given the authority to enforce a limited range of immigration laws.

McDonnell spokeswoman Stacey Johnson said using state troopers is "a common-sense way for the federal government to partner with the commonwealth to improve public safety."

It's hard to figure out how much of the decline to attribute to the bad economy and how much to immigration enforcement, said Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at Pew who co-wrote the analysis.

"They're certainly acting together," he said. Passel said illegal immigrants now find it more expensive and dangerous to cross into the U.S. and also have less incentive to do given the languishing job market in construction and other low-wage industries.

"While people are arguing the government is not stopping illegal immigration, our data suggests the flow of undocumented immigrants sneaking into the country has dropped dramatically," Passel said.

He declined to predict how long the decline in illegal immigration may last, other than to say it could take a while before unemployment in the U.S. substantially improves.

The estimates by Pew will add to the political back-and-forth on immigration reform.

Boosted by immigration and high fertility among Latinos, minorities now make up about half the children born in the U.S., part of a historic trend in which they are projected to become the new U.S. majority by mid-century. Roughly one in four counties currently have more minority children than white children or are nearing that point.

Still, the Census Bureau has made clear that projected minority growth -- particularly among Hispanics -- could change substantially depending on immigration policies and the economy. Obama has pledged to push an overhaul of federal immigration law but has declined to set a timeline.

Along with Virginia, Florida, South Carolina and Utah are among the states considering legislation similar to Arizona.

Other Pew findings:

  • The states with the highest percentage of illegal immigrants were California (6.9 percent), Nevada (6.8 percent), Texas (6.5 percent) and Arizona (5.8 percent). The numbers are expected to play an important factor in whether those states lose or gain fewer U.S. House seats than expected after the 2010 census.
  • Illegal immigrants make up about 28 percent of the foreign-born population in the U.S., down from 31 percent in 2007.
  • The unemployment rate for illegal immigrants in March 2009 was 10.4 percent _ higher than that of U.S.-born workers or legal immigrants, who had unemployment of 9.2 percent and 9.1 percent, respectively.

Because the Census Bureau does not ask people about their immigration status, the estimate on illegal immigrants is derived largely by subtracting the estimated legal immigrant population from the total foreign-born population. It is a method that has been used by the government and Pew for many years and is generally accepted.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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