Illegal immigration may be rising again — after years of decline

September 23, 2013

Since 2007, the number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States has shrunk considerably, likely due to the combination of a weak economy and stepped-up border enforcement.

But according to the latest tally from the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project, that trend may now be reversing. The unauthorized immigrant population appears to be growing again:

Pew estimates that there were likely around 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States in 2012 — although the margin of error here is pretty big. That's well below the 2007 estimate of 12.2 million unauthorized immigrants. But it's up slightly from the post-financial crisis low of 11.3 million in 2009.

It's possible that this is just a statistical blip. Getting a precise count of undocumented immigrants is, for obvious reasons, extremely difficult. But the Pew report notes some other evidence that illegal immigration might be rising again. The number of Border Patrol apprehensions ticked up in 2012 after years of decline — mainly driven by a rise in non-Mexican immigrants:

(Note that the Border Patrol likely misses at least 16 percent of people who try to cross the border, according to estimates from the Government Accountability Office. This number has fallen sharply from 30 percent back in 2006.)

It's hard to know if this uptick in illegal immigration will continue. A Council on Foreign Relations report recently estimated that the post-2007 drop was partly due to better security but mainly due to the bad economy. "The best estimate available to date," the report notes, "is that enforcement increases explain approximately one-third of the recent reduction in the flow of undocumented migrants, and economic factors the remainder."

That suggests that immigration will likely tick up again as the U.S. economy heals. But even that's disputed. Some demographers have argued that illegal Hispanic immigration — and 80 percent of all illegal immigration comes from Mexico and Latin America — isn't likely to approach its mid-2000 peak again, even if the U.S. economy does improve. That's because Mexico's population is getting older and wealthier. (Note that legal immigration flows from the United States to Mexico are now just as large as the reverse.)

In the meantime, Congress is getting no closer to passing immigration reform. The Senate passed a bill that would step up border security and offer a path to citizenship to the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants currently in the country. But the House has yet to take up the bill, and it's looking increasingly dubious that any bill will pass this session.

Further reading:

--Everything you need to know about the Senate's immigration bill. And here’s how the U.S. population would change under immigration reform.

-- Who's crossing the U.S.-Mexican border? A new study tries to find out.

-- Border security is the key to immigration reform. So how do we measure it?

-- Doug Massey: "Everything you know about immigration is wrong."

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Lydia DePillis · September 23, 2013