The illegal-immigrant population has begun to tick back up with the improving economy, rising to 11.7 million last year, according to the latest estimates Monday from the Pew Hispanic Center.
Those numbers would appear to contradict claims that the U.S. has control of its borders — a question that is at the heart of the immigration debate in Congress.
Pew, which crunched U.S. government data, said illegal immigration peaked at 12.2 million people in the country without authorization in 2007 and then began to fall, dipping to 11.3 million in 2009 before ticking up again, though at a slower rate than it did during the early part of the previous decade.
Pew said the change is particularly apparent in migration involving Mexico, where a large number of people are going from the U.S. back to Mexico — actually reducing the number of illegal immigrant Mexicans in the U.S.
“This increased return represents a marked change in pattern from the largest immigration wave in U.S. history,” Pew said.
The Obama administration has said the border is as secure as it can be, and pointed to the declining number of illegal immigrants and drop in arrests along the border as evidence. Armed with that data, President Obama has said it’s time to start legalizing illegal immigrants.
But the latest evidence bolsters those who said the poor economy, not a sealed border, was responsible for the drop in illegal immigration. While the numbers don’t prove a link, they do track the same time period as the economy’s downturn and then its slow path upward.
However, Steven A. Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which pushes for stricter immigration limits, said the leveling out and potential increases since 2009 could be due to Mr. Obama’s own enforcement priorities.
He said the administration’s decision not to go after illegal immigrants in worksite raids, and to rejigger enforcement priorities so most illegal immigrants face less danger of deportation, coincide with the trends.
Whatever the cause, Mr. Camarota said the numbers underscore there is still a problem with illegal immigration.
“These numbers remind us of what we already knew — that the number of people coming has remained high, and we never had control of these numbers,” he said.
The Department of Homeland Security hasn’t updated its estimate of the illegal-immigrant population since January 2012. In recent weeks, the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers argued that the number of illegal immigrants could actually be as high as 20 million.
Seeking to boost border security in their immigration bill, senators earlier this year approved adding 20,000 more Border Patrol agents to the southwest border — a move the Obama administration embraced.
For their part, many Republicans argue that the Obama administration doesn’t have a handle on the illegal flow across the southwest border.
The administration three years ago scrapped the previous yardstick, which measured the number of border miles under “operational control.” No replacement yardstick has been created.