The number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. held steady at about 11.3 million last year, according to a new Pew Research Center estimate released Wednesday that suggests the problem has reached a sort of dubious equilibrium.
The study comes even as the latest numbers suggest the government has also gained a handle on the surge of illegal immigrant children that surged across the border in the late spring and early summer, with the numbers now dropping back to a few thousand a month — still higher than in 2013, but far less than the 10,000 that crossed in June.
Overall, more than 65,000 unaccompanied children have now been “encountered” by border authorities this fiscal year, and nearly 63,000 families have been apprehended, straining the government’s ability to process, detain and deport them.
But after peaking in June at about 10,000 children and thousands more families jumping the border that month, both numbers have dropped dramatically. The number of children is now down to levels seen at the beginning of the year, before the late-spring surge sent the government scrambling.
President Obama last week said he has juggled staffing and deployed more judges to hear immigration cases, which he said has helped make a dent.
“The good news is we’ve started to make some progress,” he told reporters. “The number of apprehensions in August are down from July, and they’re actually lower than they were August of last year. Apprehensions in July were half of what they were in June. So we’re seeing a significant downward trend in terms of these unaccompanied children.”
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But Border Patrol agents say the drop in apprehensions is more likely seasonal, and they predict the numbers will rise again when the weather cools and it becomes less arduous to trek through Mexico en route from Central America.
The children and families have become a focal point in a renewed debate over border security and whether the administration has taken enough steps to halt a future flow of illegal immigrants.
Mr. Obama says he has, and says it’s time for Congress to turn its attention to legalizing illegal immigrants. Many congressional Republicans, though, say the surge of children has exposed holes that must be fixed before illegal immigrants are legalized.
The Pew numbers suggest that the population of illegal immigrants has remained fairly steady, rising or falling by less than 2 percent a year for the last five years.
At the same time, however, those illegal immigrants in the U.S. have been here for longer — a median time of 13 years. In 2003, the median was less than eight years.
Pew said about 1 million illegal immigrants have already been granted tentative immigration status by Mr. Obama.
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Mr. Obama had promised earlier this year to expand those policies and try to grant tentative status to other illegal immigrants. He had set a self-imposed end-of-summer deadline for acting.
But over the last week he and his aides have backed off that deadline, saying that while he still intends to act, the surge of children has been a distraction and has affected public opinion.
Indeed, the latest Pew numbers suggest the public has shifted slightly back toward prioritizing border security over legalization of illegal immigrants.