The Department of Homeland Security is claiming success after an independent study released Wednesday argued that stepped-up enforcement efforts have reduced the illegal immigrant population by 11 percent since August.
The report, by the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that calls for more enforcement and immigration restrictions, says the "likely illegal immigrant population" of lesser-educated Hispanics ages 18 to 40 dropped significantly from August through May. The center argues that this decline corresponds with stepped-up enforcement efforts after the failure of a "comprehensive immigration reform" bill in June 2007.
The finding goes to the heart of the immigration debate. Those advocating enforcement say existing laws can reduce the illegal immigrant population through attrition without resorting to amnesty. Immigrant rights groups say legalization is the only way to address that population.
"You have just the natural phenomenon: One cop pulls over a speeder, and everyone else on the highway slows down. What you have to do is make enforcement a real possibility to begin to affect behavior," said Steven A. Camarota, research director at CIS, which produced the study based on U.S. Census Bureau reports.
After President Bush's immigration bill failed to pass last year, in part because voters didn't think the government would follow through on border security and interior enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security stepped up enforcement of existing laws. Some states and localities also followed suit, imposing penalties on businesses that don't verify employees' work eligibility or allowing state and local police to enforce immigration laws.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Brandon Alvarez-Montgomery said the report's findings confirm what they have "heard anecdotally about illegal aliens leaving on their own and what we have seen in other indicators at the Department of Homeland Security."
"Certainly a strong program of interior enforcement has made entering and staying in the United States illegally less attractive as the probability of being arrested and detained is greater than ever before," he said, pointing to better tools for businesses to check workers, and to ramped-up workplace raids and efforts to deport fugitive aliens and criminals.
Meanwhile, ICE announced a pilot program to allow hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who are defying deportation orders to come forward and set up a schedule for leaving. The voluntary program would allow the immigrants not to be detained in the interim, would remove some penalties and would give them time to get their affairs in order.
ICE portrayed the move as a chance for immigrant-rights groups, who have criticized the agency for its fugitive raids, to "step up to the table" and prove they want an orderly system.
"One of the criticisms we face though, from immigrant advocacy groups and from faith-based organizations and community groups, is there's a better way to do this - if we just gave people an opportunity to turn themselves in, they would do so," said Jim Hayes, acting director of ICE's Office of Detention and Removal.
The program would be open in five pilot cities - Santa Ana, Calif., San Diego, Phoenix, Chicago and Charlotte, N.C. -from Aug. 5 to Aug. 22. It would apply to about 500,000 fugitive aliens who have been ordered deported but who don't have disqualifying criminal records and are not seen as a threat to security.
Immigrant rights groups criticized the new program, saying it was unlikely anyone would self-report.
"The worst-hit communities in America probably provide more opportunity than rural Guatemala or other destinations from which immigrants are coming," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
"While the flow of undocumented immigrants has slowed since the economy first started to sputter in 2000, it is still the case that the demand for legal immigration from our economy and families far outstrips the supply of legal immigration from the government," he said.
The groups also disputed the CIS study's methodology and said enforcement won't solve the illegal immigration problem.
Angela Kelley, director of the Immigration Policy Center, said the population of illegal immigrants is "nearly impossible to accurately measure," and that using less-educated Hispanics was a poor substitute for illegal immigrants.
The Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform said American workers won't be able to replace illegal immigrants and that the loss would be devastating to the agriculture industry.
"'Attrition through enforcement' means attrition of the American economy. It means job attrition. It means attrition of our nation's ability to produce our own wholesome and abundant food," ACIR said in a statement. "It means relying on the world to feed us. 'Attrition through enforcement' is no solution. It is a hungry wolf in sheep's clothing."
The immigrant advocates said a slumping economy is a more likely explanation for the figures.
But Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said the report shows enforcing current laws can make a dent in illegal immigration.
"Today's report proves that America does not need new immigration laws, comprehensive immigration reform or amnesty - which only encourages more illegal immigration," he said. "Congress and the administration simply need to ensure that our immigration laws are enforced and our borders secured. Then, and only then, will we be able to solve the problem of illegal immigration in this country."
The report, released at a press conference Wednesday, said the illegal immigrant population declined 11 percent from August through May, from 12.5 million to 11.2 million. If the pace of the decline continues, the report said, the total population of illegals would be reduced by one-half over the next five years.
The study is based on monthly Census Bureau numbers from the Current Population Survey. Mr. Camarota said the likely legal immigrant population has continued to rise even as the likely illegal immigrant population has dropped.
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