- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2009

The federal government last week said that after years of increases, the illegal-immigrant population in the U.S. dropped for the first time, between 2007 and 2008 - about the time that both a recession and tougher immigration enforcement began.

In a report, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics said the illegal-immigrant population in January 2008 was 11.6 million - or 200,000 smaller than a year earlier.

DHS demographers didn’t hazard a guess as to why the population dropped, and cautioned against reading too much into one year’s figures. But the findings seem to confirm projections from both liberal and conservative analysts outside government.

“Our OIS report indicates a drop of approximately 200,000 in the illegal-immigrant population in the U.S. The department’s increased border security and interior-enforcement efforts, along with the state of the economy, may contribute to this,” said Amy Kudwa, spokeswoman for DHS.

Two earlier studies, one by the Center for Immigration Studies and another by the Pew Hispanic Center, had suggested similar outcomes.

While DHS wouldn’t take a side in the debate over causes, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said the drop was the result of President Bush getting tough on illegal immigration at the end of his term.

“They proved what we know: Attrition through enforcement works. The Obama administration must heed these results. And if they are serious about upholding the rule of law, they need to continue to enforce it,” Mr. Smith said.

The new White House is conducting a top-to-bottom review of immigration enforcement. But Obama team officials were critical of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s raid of a Bellingham, Wash., machine shop last week in which more than two dozen suspected illegal immigrants were detained.

In his budget submission, President Obama requested money to continue and expand E-Verify, the voluntary computer system that lets businesses check new hires’ work eligibility in a government database, though his administration has delayed a requirement that all federal contractors be required to use the database.

According to the DHS’s report, Mexicans continue to make up an ever-increasing share of the illegal-immigrant population, with 74 percent of all illegal immigrants who took up residence between 2000 and 2008 coming from Mexico.

And California continues to be the most popular place to settle, with 2.9 million illegal immigrants living there in 2008. Still, the rate of increase has slowed for California, but has picked up dramatically in other states. Georgia, for example, saw its illegal-immigrant population balloon from 220,000 in 2000 to 460,000 in 2008, figures showed.