- Associated Press - Thursday, December 6, 2012

The United States saw a clear and sustained drop in illegal immigration last year, ending more than a decade of increases, according to data released Thursday by the Census Bureau.

The number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. dropped to an estimated 11.1 million last year from a peak of 12 million in 2007, part of an overall waning of immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries. For the first time since 1910, the number of Hispanic immigrants last year to the U.S. was topped by immigrants from Asia.

Demographers say illegal Hispanic immigration — 80 percent of all illegal immigration comes from Mexico and Latin America — isn’t likely to approach its mid-2000 peak again, due in part to a sluggish U.S. economy and stronger border enforcement, but also because of a graying of the Mexican population.

In all, the biggest surge of immigration in modern U.S. history ultimately may be recorded as occurring in the mid-1990s to early 2000s, yielding illegal residents who now have been settled in the U.S. for 10 years or more. They include migrants who arrived here as teens and are increasingly at risk of “aging out” of congressional proposals such as the so-called Dream Act that offer a pathway to citizenship for younger adults.

“The priority now is to push a vigorous debate about the undocumented people already here,” said Jose Antonio Vargas, 31, a journalist from the Philippines. “We want to become citizens and not face the threat of deportation or be treated as second class,” said Mr. Vargas, one of a number of immigration activists pushing for citizenship for the entire illegal population in the U.S. They point to a strong Hispanic and Asian-American turnout for President Obama in last month’s election as evidence of public support for a broad overhaul of immigration policy.

Earlier this year, Mr. Obama unilaterally extended to many younger immigrants temporary reprieves from deportation. But Mr. Vargas, who has lived in the U.S. since 1993, is among a large group of illegal immigrants who are too old to qualify.

Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Research Center and a former Census Bureau official, said immigration policies now being debated will have a significant impact on the U.S. labor force, which is projected to shrink by 2030. Aging white baby boomers, many in specialized or management roles, are beginning to retire. The number of Mexican immigrants, which has helped fill needs in farming, home health care and other low-wage U.S. jobs, has leveled off.

“Immigration is one way to boost the number of workers in the population,” Mr. Passel said, but the next wave of needed immigrants is likely to come from somewhere other than Mexico. “We are not going to see a return to the levels of Mexican unauthorized immigration of a decade ago.”

The immigration shift may have an impact on the future racial and ethnic makeup of the U.S., pushing back official government projections on when non-Hispanic whites will be less than a majority in the country. The Census Bureau originally reported in 2008 that white children would become a minority in 2023 and the overall white population would follow in 2042. But the agency has since suggested the tipping points may arrive later, due to a slowdown in mostly Hispanic immigration.

The data showed that 11.1 million, or 28 percent, of the foreign-born population in the U.S. consists of illegal immigrants, virtually unchanged since 2009 and roughly equal to the level of 2005. An additional 12.2 million foreign-born people, 31 percent, are permanent legal residents with green cards. And 15.1 million, or 37 percent, are naturalized U.S. citizens.

Hispanics and Asian-Americans are the nation’s fastest-growing population groups, each increasing by more than 40 percent since 2000. A higher birth rate and years of steadily high immigration have boosted Hispanics to 17 percent of the U.S. population, compared with blacks at 12 percent and Asians at 5 percent.

Even if the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal residents do not attain citizenship, the nation’s Hispanics, who made up roughly 10 percent of voters in November, are expected to nearly double their share of the voting population by 2030. The number of Asian-Americans, who now are 3 percent of voters, also will continue to increase.