WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) – A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. has found that a previously observed decline in the number of unauthorized immigrants in the nation has seemingly reversed itself.
A release posted by experts by the center stated that approximately 11.7 million illegal immigrants were residing in the United States as of March 2012, a figure that indicates an increase from the 11.5 million that lived in America in 2011, and the 11.3 million that took up residence in the country in 2010.
Researchers involved in the study said the figure still fell short of its peak in 2007, but also reinforced that the figures are estimates at best.
“The estimated number of unauthorized immigrants peaked at 12.2 million in 2007 and fell to 11.3 million in 2009, breaking a rising trend that had held for decades,” the release noted. “Although there are indications the number of unauthorized immigrants may be rising, the 2012 population estimate is the midpoint of a wide range of possible values and in a statistical sense is no different from the 2009 estimate.”
Pew said that among the six states with the largest numbers of immigrants here illegally, only Texas had a consistent increase in illegal immigration from 2007 to 2011, due in part to its stronger economy. Its number was unchanged from 2011 to 2012. Two states — Florida and New Jersey — had an initial drop but then increases during the same 2007-2011 period. Three states — California, Illinois and New York — showed only declines.
“As a whole, with the recession ending, the decrease in illegal immigration has stopped,” said Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at Pew.
Passel noted that historically the level of illegal immigration has been closely tied to the strength of the U.S. economy and availability of jobs. Since 2009, the average U.S. unemployment rate has dropped from 9.3 percent to 8.1 percent last year, with signs of strength in the construction industry, which yields jobs generally attractive to newly arrived Latino immigrants.
The Pew analysis is based on census data through March 2012. Because the Census Bureau does not ask people about their immigration status, the estimate on illegal immigrants is derived largely by subtracting the estimated legal immigrant population from the total foreign-born population. It is a method that has been used by the government and Pew for many years and is generally accepted.
Analysts said it was hard to predict whether immigrants in the country illegally could eventually exceed the record total of 12.2 million in 2007. Continued modest increases are possible, but another big surge like the one seen in the late 1990s and early 2000s isn’t likely, due in part to demographic factors such as Mexico’s aging workforce.
“Labor demand in the U.S. is still slack and wages are eroding, whereas there are jobs in Mexico and wages are slowly rising as labor force growth there decelerates,” said Douglas Massey, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University who is co-director of the Mexican Migration Project. “The pressures for mass migration are diminishing for now, but who knows what kind of disasters lie ahead?”
Analyses of census data from the U.S. and Mexican governments show that the number of immigrants here illegally peaked at 12.2 million in 2007, during the U.S. housing boom, and before the recession hit. It then dropped roughly 7 percent to 11.3 million in 2009, the first two-year decline in two decades, due to the weak U.S. economy which shrank construction and service-sector jobs. Much of the decline came as many Mexican workers who already were here saw diminishing job opportunities and returned home.
Since then, the U.S. economy has shown some improvement, while public opinion regarding immigrants has shifted in some cases in favor of granting legal rights. For instance, some state legislatures this year have passed immigrant-friendly measures such as college tuition breaks and rights to driver’s licenses, even as others enacted laws aimed at tightening the system.
The latest numbers on illegal immigration come as prospects for passage of a comprehensive U.S. immigration bill appear dim. A bill passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate and backed by the White House includes billions for border security as well as a 13-year path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants already here illegally.
But most House Republicans have rejected this comprehensive approach, and the House Judiciary Committee has moved forward with individual, single-issue immigration bills that could come to the floor sometime later this year or next. It’s unclear whether the GOP-dominated House will ever pass legislation that could form the basis for a final deal with the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Steve A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington group that advocates tighter immigration policies, said the immigration issue will be tough to resolve.
“The numbers remind us the problem of illegal immigration isn’t going away anytime soon,” he said, “unless we take steps to enforce the laws or have legalization of those here illegally.”
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