For the First Time in Years, Population of Undocumented Immigrants Drops

For years I’ve been writing articles referring to the "12 million undocumented immigrants living in this country."

But it turns out the number isn’t accurate any longer. The U.S. government has just announced that the undocumented immigrant population decreased to 11 million as of January 2009.

This announcement earned brief mentions today in major newspapers and websites, but it’s big news. Why?

Because it represents a historic reversal in a trend that has been underway for some time -- a steady year-to-year increase in the country’s undocumented immigrant population. The shrinking of this population is proof the current economic recession has been a defining event in the country’s immigration history.

According to the data made public by the Office on Immigration Statistics, the U.S. undocumented immigrant population peaked in January 2007 at 11.8 million, had shrank by about 200,000 people a year later, and dropped even more sharply, by 800,000 people, to 10.8 million in January 2009.

That’s a reduction of 1 million people in two years. Some will argue this trend has a great deal to do with stepped up enforcement, and that may be true to some extent. But enforcement has been increasing for 15 years at least, beginning a few years into the Clinton administration, and it can’t be a coincidence that the undocumented immigrant population suddenly began contracting sharply as the economy started to cool in 2007-2008.

I expect that the figures for January 2010, when they’re released a year from now, will show a further drop in undocumented immigrant numbers. We may be reckoning with a population of 10 million undocumented immigrants heading into this decade.

This trend adds an arrow to the quill of immigration reform advocates who say now’s the time to revamp the nation’s immigration system -- when there’s less pressure on the border and communities nationwide from an ongoing influx of undocumented immigrants. At the local and state level, the stabilization of this population will allow authorities to address the issue free of the alarmist climate sometimes caused when there are sudden immigration surges.

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