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Increasing Evidence That Recession Has Caused Number of Unauthorized Immigrants in US to Drop

According to a new DHS report, 11.8 million unauthorized immigrants lived in the United States as of January 2007. By January 2009, that number had fallen to 10.8 million.
 
 
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In another indication that the recession has affected the size of the unauthorized immigrant population, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) now estimates that the number of unauthorized immigrants residing in the United States fell by about 1 million between January 2007 and January 2009. According to a new DHS report, 11.8 million unauthorized immigrants lived in the United States as of January 2007. By January 2009, that number had fallen to 10.8 million. 

Though estimates of illegal immigration are subject to wide margins of error, the new report is consistent with an earlier study that also found a decline in the unauthorized population beginning in 2007. In April 2009, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that between March 2007 and March 2008, the size of the unauthorized immigrant population decreased by 500,000 people. Pew has not published more recent estimates. 

The DHS report indicates that the drop in unauthorized immigrants was particularly pronounced in certain states. California and Florida experienced the greatest absolute decreases between 2007 and 2009, as each state lost more than 200,000 unauthorized immigrants. In California, this represented an 8 percent drop and in Florida a 25 percent drop. In Arizona, the unauthorized population fell by 13 percent, but in absolute terms this was less than 75,000 people. 

Although the number of unauthorized immigrants residing in Texas, Georgia, and Illinois also decreased, the drops represented a decrease of just a few percent — probably within the margin of error of the estimates. 

In terms of country of origin, the number of unauthorized Mexican immigrants dropped by only about 5 percent (or about 300,000). DHS estimates that the number of unauthorized Chinese immigrants fell by about half and the number from Brazil by about a fifth. In contrast, there was a marked increase in the number of unauthorized immigrants from Honduras and Ecuador. 

The overall decrease in the unauthorized population marks a dramatic break from the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium, when the unauthorized population steadily increased. Pew Hispanic Center estimates there were 3.5 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States in 1990, and that the inflow of unauthorized immigrants averaged 800,000 immigrants per year between 2000 and 2004, and 500,000 immigrants per year between 2005 and 2007. 

Most experts agree that the decline in the number of unauthorized immigrants is closely linked to the US recession. Studies have found that historically, recessions affect unauthorized workers disproportionately, as they are more likely to work in industries that are sensitive to business cycles, such as construction, manufacturing, and hospitality. In addition, unauthorized immigrants tend to have less secure contractual arrangements with their employers than do native-born and lawful-immigrant workers. 

The current recession has hit unauthorized immigrants especially hard because of job losses in the construction industry, the sector of the economy the recession weakened most. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the industry shed 700,000 jobs between the first quarter of 2007 and first quarter of 2008. Pew found that 21 percent of unauthorized immigrant workers were employed in the construction industry in 2008. California, Florida, and Arizona have been particularly hurt by the recession, and these three states have had relatively high foreclosure rates and housing price declines — factors that affect the demand for immigrant labor in construction. 

Another indication of the lower levels of unauthorized migration is the drop in the number of apprehensions at the border. US Customs and Border Protection registered only 556,000 apprehensions of individuals attempting to enter the United States illegally during fiscal year (FY) 2009 (the federal government's fiscal year runs from October 1 through September 30). That number represents the lowest level of apprehensions since the mid-1970s. The 2009 level of apprehensions was a 23 percent drop from the number made in FY 2008 (724,000) and a 50 percent drop from the apprehensions number in FY 2006 (1.1 million)