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Why the Undocumented Immigrant Population is Down

There has been a sharp decline in the number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States, according to a report released on September 1 by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group.  Annual unauthorized immigration inflow between March 2007 and March 2009 were almost two-thirds smaller compared to the period between March 2000 and March 2005.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was quick to take credit.  Matt Chandler, DHS Deputy Press Secretary said in a press release that DHS enforcement measures have been a major factor in this dramatic drop.

According to Mr. Chandler, the DHS has doubled the number of border control agents from 10,000 in 2004 to more than 20,000 today.  It has cracked down on more employers that hire illegal labor, has increased seizures of illegal goods, and has removed criminal aliens at an unprecedented level.

Interestingly, some states directly affected by increased DHS enforcement and federal deployment of the National Guard to the border did not show extremely significant reduction in the unauthorized immigrant population.  Texas, for instance which is a vocal anti-immigration state, experienced only a negligible drop.

On the other hand, states that suffered from severe recession, such as Florida, Nevada and Virginia experienced large drops in unauthorized immigration in 2008 and 2009.  Arizona had a 20% drop before their harsh anti-immigrant law went into effect.  The decline in unauthorized immigration seemed largely the result of the housing bust that ended nearly all new home and real estate development in these states in 2008.

Closer examination into the historic rates of unauthorized immigration flow between the years 2000 and 2009 does not establish a convincing relationship between DHS activity and the steep drop in 2008 and 2009.  If the DHS’s claims were true, the data would show a steady decline in unauthorized immigration flow between 2004 and the present.  However, the data does not show a decrease in unauthorized immigrant flow compared to increased DHS activity.  In fact it widely fluctuates, and finally shows a dramatic decline between 2008 and 2009.

The data in the reports shows that the decreased flow of immigrants was due largely to a combination of abysmal economic conditions and the high levels of unemployment in industries that affected immigrants the most such as construction, hospitality and service.  In the past decade unauthorized immigration flow closely matched unemployment rates and economic fluctuations.

Previous to the drop described in the Pew Report, another drastic decline occurred between 2000 and 2002 coincidentally around the last recession.  Much like the current drop in immigrant flow, the previous drop coincided with weak job prospects and precarious economic conditions.  As long as economic conditions stay the way they are, unauthorized immigration flow will either remain the same or fall further only to pick up once confidence in the economy returns.

This Pew Hispanic Report has widespread implications for the current immigration debate.  Harsh enforcement measures will not fix our broken immigration system, regardless of what Mr. Chandler or Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer say.

It will make more sense to assimilate the unauthorized population and channel our strained government resources to improve our economy rather than to build fences on the border.

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