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


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) 

Other sources have also pointed to analogous decreases in the number of Mexican immigrants arriving in the United States. Because the level of legal immigration from Mexico to the United States has not changed in the last few years, experts have attributed the drop to a decline in the numbers of unauthorized Mexican immigrants. The US Census Bureau's Current Population Survey (CPS) estimates that just 175,000 Mexican immigrants entered the United States between March 2008 and March 2009, the lowest level in over a decade. 

Similarly, survey results from Mexico's National Survey of Employment and Occupation (ENOE) have reported that flows out of Mexico were 20 percent lower between February 2008 and February 2009 than during the same period a year earlier. Studies have shown that nearly all Mexican migrants that leave the country move to the United States. 

Some experts have argued that increased border security and interior immigration enforcement measures are responsible for the drop in levels of unauthorized immigrants. They point to the fact that in Arizona, which experienced a large decrease in its unauthorized immigrant population between 2008 and 2009, state officials have implemented tougher immigration enforcement measures, such as requiring all businesses to use the federal E-Verify program to check whether newly hired employees are authorized to work. However, DHS estimates show a larger drop in Florida, which has implemented no such measures. 

Others have attributed the overall drop in the size of the unauthorized immigrant population to higher rates of return migration, either in response to heightened levels of interior immigration enforcement, or because of the recession. But the data from Mexico do not show any major change in the pattern of return migration to that country. 

According to ENOE data, between February 2008 and February 2009, an estimated 443,000 Mexican immigrants returned to Mexico, roughly the same number of immigrants who returned between February 2007 and February 2008 (440,000), and 36,000 fewer than returned between February 2006 and February 2007 (479,000). There has likely been more significant return migration to China, Brazil, and other countries not so negatively affected by recession; however, these countries account for much smaller shares of the overall unauthorized population than Mexico. 

While the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States appears to have significantly declined between 2007 and 2009, the number of legal immigrants has remained constant. According to the 2008 DHS Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, the United States admitted about 1.1 million lawful permanent residents during FY 2008, roughly the same number as in FY 2007. The stability of the permanent resident numbers suggests that family sponsorship, which accounts for the bulk of permanent immigrant admissions to the United States, has been relatively unaffected by the economic downturn. 

Similarly, the number of refugees admitted to the United States each year has also remained unchanged, as the president sets annual refugee admissions levels in response to specific country conditions abroad. 

Yet the recession has tempered employer-driven demand for highly skilled temporary workers. In 2009, the annual cap of 65,000 H-1B visas for skilled foreign-born workers allowed was reached more than eight months after US Citizenship and Immigration Services first began accepting applications. In prior years, the cap had been met within the first few days or weeks of the filing-eligibility date. 

The growing evidence that illegal immigration has declined has prompted new speculation over the prospects for legislation granting legal status to unauthorized immigrants. Supporters of such legislation have argued that the decline in the flow of unauthorized immigrants, combined with the fact that few unauthorized immigrants in the United States are returning home, presents an opportune moment to legalize those already in the country without legal status. 

Critics, however, argue that at a time of high unemployment rates, any legalization program would negatively affect employment prospects for native-born and authorized workers.

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