Illegal Immigration Slows As Economy Weakens

Illegal immigration slows as economy weakens

Leslie Fulbright
San Francosco Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, October 3, 2008

(10-02) 12:09 PDT WASHINGTON — Illegal immigration has slowed in the past three years, and the influx of legal permanent immigrant residents in the United States now exceeds the number of new undocumented residents, according to a report released Thursday by a Washington think tank.

There were approximately 11.9 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States as of March, down from 12.4 million in March 2007, says the report by the Pew Hispanic Center.

The number of people coming into the country illegally decreased from 800,000 a year from 2000 through 2004 to about 500,000 a year from 2005 through 2008. The number of legal permanent immigrant residents – those granted lawful permission to live in the United States but who are not citizens – who came into the country in 2007 was about 650,000.

That was the first time in a decade that new legal immigrant residents outnumbered new illegal immigrants, the study said. It cautioned that the changes may not be statistically significant because of the possibility of sampling errors.

In the past decade, large numbers of undocumented immigrants arrived at a time when legal immigration remained stable.

“In the last year or two, there has been no growth at all of incoming illegal immigrants,” senior demographer Jeffrey Passel, who co-authored the report, said during a telephone conference to discuss his findings. “It was growing rapidly and substantially over 15 years and now has essentially come to a halt.

“There are far fewer undocumented immigrants coming into the country.”

The report was not designed to explain why the numbers have decreased, but it suggests that possible reasons include the heightened focus on enforcement of immigration laws and slower U.S. economic growth.

“The drop reflects the weakness of the economy, particularly the sectors that employ undocumented workers like construction,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor at UC Berkeley specializing in labor issues, said there are a number of powerful forces reducing the numbers of undocumented immigrants. “People are less likely to risk everything to get here if they can't get a job.”

Immigration experts also said stepped up enforcement has created a climate of fear.

“Polls show that many Hispanics are concerned about enforcement and deportation,” said D'Vera Cohn, a senior writer at the Pew Research Center who co-authored the report.

But William Frey, a demographer at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said he believes the economy is the biggest influence on the drop in illegal immigration.

“We don't usually think of illegal immigration as responding to the labor market, but apparently it does,” Frey said.

Although the influx of illegal immigrants has slowed, the population of them has still increased by about 40 percent since 2000, when it was 8.4 million, to an estimated 11.9 million in March.

One of the changes in this decade is that the growth of Latinos is coming more from births than immigrants, Passel said.

“The Latino population will continue to grow rapidly regardless of what happens to illegal immigration,” he said. “The growth is coming from people already here, and the children they are having.”

Mexico continues to be the largest source of unauthorized migration, accounting for an estimated 59 percent of all undocumented immigrants.

The census does not differentiate between legal and illegal residents when it counts immigrants. The researchers estimated their numbers by using the difference between foreigners who can be accounted for and the total number counted by the census.

A report on income, also released Thursday by the center, says the economic slowdown has taken a far greater toll on noncitizen immigrants than on the U.S. population as a whole.

The median income for noncitizen households fell 7.3 percent from 2006 to 2007, while the median income for all households increased 1.3 percent, the report said. The report explains that noncitizen immigrants are most susceptible to economic downturns, in part because many do not have college degrees and are employed in blue-collar jobs.

The largest losses in income were for Hispanics from Mexico and Latin American countries, said Rakesh Kochhar, a research director at the Pew Hispanic Center.

“The economy is taking a far greater toll on noncitizens than households as a whole,” Kochhar said, “especially those without high school education or working in construction and or service occupations.”

The reports by the Pew Hispanic Center, a research organization that studies the impact of Latinos on the nation, are based primarily on census data.

E-mail Leslie Fulbright at

This article appeared on page A – 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle