Illegal immigration appears to have fallen last year, marking the first drop in years and coinciding with Congress’ failure to pass a legalization bill and the Bush administration’s stepped-up raids and enforcement.
In a study released Thursday, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that the illegal immigrant population fell by 500,000 from 12.4 million in March 2007 to 11.9 million this year.
The study’s authors caution that the finding is “inconclusive” because of the margin of error of the estimates, although the findings mirror those of the Center for Immigration Studies, which also estimated a drop in illegal immigration.
The Department of Homeland Security also said it has seen evidence that the flow of illegal immigrants is slacking off as well.
“In the history of law enforcement, there has never been zero crime, but both the steady decrease in illegal crossings at the southwest border and the unfortunate increase in violence against our agents tell us that our posture is working,” Homeland Security spokeswoman Laura Keehner said.
The Pew study, which used U.S. Census Bureau statistics, says there could be many reasons for the drop: a slowdown in U.S. economic growth that has dried up opportunities for illegal workers, economic growth in Latin American countries that has kept some workers at home and heightened enforcement in the U.S.
Illegal immigration from Mexico, which accounts for much more than half of the U.S. illegal immigrant population, appears to have stalled, while illegal immigration from the rest of Latin America appears to have declined substantially.
“This recent decline is borne out by other Bureau of Labor Statistics data, cited in a recent annual Pew Hispanic Center report, indicating that the number of foreign-born South Americans in the U.S. work force declined in the first quarter of 2008 compared with 2007,” the Pew study said.
Steven A. Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, said his own study showed the drop began even before a spike in unemployment among the apparent illegal-alien population, suggesting that enforcement did play a role.
“We all agree that something has changed. Incentives changed and the flow changed,” he said.
According to Pew’s estimates, the illegal immigrant population was 8.4 million in March 2000, 9.4 million in 2001, 9.2 million in 2002, 9.8 million in 2003, 10.2 million in 2004, 11.1 million in 2005, 11.5 million in 2006 and peaked at 12.4 million in 2007 before dropping to 11.9 million.
In another study released Thursday, Pew researches said the income of noncitizen immigrant households dropped 7.3 percent from 2006 to 2007, particularly among Hispanics.
Pressured by President Bush, Senate leaders tried last year to pass a bipartisan bill legalizing most illegal immigrants and restructuring the immigration system. But after a huge outcry from voters, including so many phone calls that the Senate’s phone system was overloaded, the bill was defeated by a bipartisan filibuster.
Without a legalization bill, the Bush administration announced that it would instead step up enforcement — and the Department of Homeland Security says that doing so appears to have worked. The new measures include more workplace raids, construction of fencing and vehicle barriers along part of the U.S.-Mexico border and detaining more illegal immigrants rather than releasing them.
Also, many states have enacted their own laws to go after illegal immigrants, including several states that now require businesses to check their hires against a federal work-eligibility database. Some states and localities, such as Prince William County in the Washington metropolitan region, also have asked local police to enforce immigration laws.
But stepped-up enforcement has spawned a backlash, both among Hispanic rights groups and some lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Last week, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, both Democrats, introduced a bill to curb what they said are abuses by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The bill would require ICE to notify welfare agencies before conducting a workplace raid and would set new standards for treatment of those caught in raids.