The number of illegal immigrants in the United States dropped by nearly 1 million from 2007 to 2009 as the Bush administration ramped up enforcement efforts just as the economy took a dive, according to new figures the Homeland Security Department released Tuesday.
The drop - which analysts said is unprecedented in modern history - indicates that more illegal immigrants left to go back home, and that fewer illegal immigrants actually tried to cross the border in 2007 and 2008 - data that will play a major role when Congress takes up the immigration issue later this year.
Homeland Security demographers said the nation’s population of illegal immigrants totaled 10.8 million in January 2009, down from a peak of 11.8 million in 2007, and from 11.6 million in January 2008. The reduction was powered in large part by a drop in illegal immigrants from Mexico, which saw a decline of nearly 400,000.
The numbers, based on U.S. Census Bureau data, come as President Obama and a bipartisan group of senators seek to push a new overhaul bill that would legalize most illegal immigrants and revamp the legal immigration system.
After the last effort to pass an immigration bill failed in mid-2007, the Bush administration announced it would step up enforcement efforts, including high-profile raids and new powers to enforce immigration laws for some state and local police departments. At almost the same time, the economy entered a recession in December 2007, lessening the attraction of the country for would-be immigrants.
Matthew Chandler, a Homeland Security spokesman, said both factors likely contributed to the dropping numbers.
“When employment opportunities shrink as they have during the current recession and particularly in those industries employing large numbers of unauthorized immigrants, then it would not be unexpected to see a decrease in the unauthorized population,” he said.
Mr. Chandler also credited the “unprecedented resources” his department has devoted to stopping crime and smuggling along the Southwest border, as well as what he called “smarter and more effective immigration-law enforcement.”
Late last year, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the stepped-up enforcement has proven to be effective, and said the government has shown it can secure the borders. She argued the time is now ripe to move to a broader legalization bill.
But Steven A. Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which backs a crackdown on immigration, said the numbers poke a hole in one of the arguments for legalization - the notion that illegal immigrants are here to stay, so legalizing them is the only option.
“This suggests that that may not be the case - that in fact the numbers can go down. It’s not inexorable. Instead of growing, it’s fallen quite a bit,” he said.
Every year about this time the Department of Homeland Security releases an estimate of the nation’s illegal-immigrant population. The department warned that year-to-year data can be uncertain.
But the Homeland Security numbers match a study Mr. Camarota released last summer that also estimated the illegal-immigrant population at about 10.8 million at the beginning of 2009.