Despite tighter border enforcement and a post-Sept. 11, 2001, economic slump, the number of illegal immigrants in the United States has continued to grow steadily, with many moving into states that traditionally have small foreign-born populations, according to a new report released yesterday.
Based on Census Bureau and other government data, the Pew Hispanic Center, a private research group in Washington, estimated the number of undocumented immigrants at 10.3 million as of last March, an increase of 23 percent from the 8.4 million estimate in 2000. More than 50 percent of that growth was attributable to Mexican nationals living illegally in the United States, the report said.
Most of the overall growth has been in states that previously had small foreign-born populations, including Arizona and North Carolina, as well as the Washington metropolitan area.
The combined population of illegal immigrants in Maryland, Virginia and the District increased almost 70 percent from an estimated 300,000 in 2000 to about 500,000 in 2004, said demographer Jeffrey S. Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center.
The reason, he said, is simple. "What drives the growth in immigrant populations in general is employment opportunities," Passel said, especially in fields that do not require formal education. Specifically, Passel cited the booming construction industry in Virginia, Maryland and the District; the service industry in Washington; and poultry processing plants on the Eastern Shore.
The report comes on the eve of a mini-summit in Texas tomorrow during which President Bush, Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin are scheduled to discuss immigration, among other topics.
Pew Hispanic Center Director Roberto Suro said that the number of illegal immigrants continues to grow at the same rate as in the 1990s -- approximately 485,000 a year -- "despite significant efforts by the government to try to restrain the flow . . . at the border."
Mexicans remain the largest group of illegal migrants, at 5.9 million or about 57 percent of the March 2004 estimate, the report said. An additional 24 percent or 2.5 million undocumented immigrants are from other Latin American countries. Assuming the flow into the country has not changed since a year ago, the population of undocumented immigrants could number nearly 11 million today, the report said.
Of particular note, said Suro and Passel, was the growth of large undocumented populations in states other than those with traditionally large foreign-born populations, such as California, Texas, Florida and New York. Joining those states in 2002 were Arizona, with an estimated 500,000 illegal migrants, and North Carolina, with 300,000. There are now six states that each have an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 undocumented immigrants, including Maryland and Virginia, Suro said.
The size, age and national origins of the undocumented population were derived by subtracting the estimated legal immigrant population from the total foreign-born population.
Undocumented immigrants are defined as those who are in the United States illegally or who have remained in the country on expired visas, as well as a small percentage of those who only have legal authorization to be in the United States, such as those with temporary protected status and those seeking asylum.
The numbers in the Pew report came as no surprise to immigration advocacy groups, some of whom have issued similar estimates in the past four months.
"It's clear that America's lost control of its border," said Steven Camarota, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tighter immigration controls. "The problem is that once we all agree we have this enormous problem, then what to do about it is something we can't agree on. When you can't agree on the benefits and costs of a program, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to formulate any kind of a policy."
Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, which favors a plan to legalize illegal immigrants, said the continued growth of that population simply shows that current immigration policy "is broken."
"It's dysfunctional. How we go about fixing it is the big question," she said.