washingtonpost.com
Recession Unlikely to Drive Away Illegal Immigrants, Report Finds

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009

Although the U.S. economy's nosedive has probably contributed to a substantial drop in the number of illegal immigrants coming into the United States, those already here will be less motivated to return home, according to a report released yesterday.

Among other reasons, the report cited illegal immigrants' family and job ties to this country, the difficulty they would face trying to reenter the United States after its economy improves, the comparatively weaker state of their countries' economies and the strengthening U.S. dollar.

The study by the nonpartisan, Washington-based Migration Policy Institute also noted that an analysis of previous recessions suggests that unless the current one is extremely prolonged, the rate of legal immigration to the United States will be largely unaffected.

"The immigration system of the United States makes people wait in line for years to get their visa," study co-author Demetrios G. Papademetriou said. "So, by the time it becomes available for a family member or a valued employee, people tend to jump at the opportunity. They don't want to return to the back of the line."

The more likely, and worrisome, possible effect of the recession on illegal immigrants, Papademetriou said, is that it will drive them to accept ever-lower-paying jobs under ever-worsening conditions.

"We have to be careful about what people desperate for a job may do," he said. "This begins to affect the labor standards and wages of not just the immigrants, but the people who work with them. This has very important social and economic consequences for the country. . . . If we're not careful, we could have situations that are unanticipated and that we haven't seen in this country for a while."

The report synthesized recent statistical analyses and global, historical data to offer a picture of the potential effects of the current crisis on different categories of migrants.

A growing body of evidence from the U.S. Census Bureau and independent researchers suggests that after a decade of massive growth, the total size of the illegal immigrant population in the United States abruptly leveled off over the past year, to just under 12 million. The only other period in the past decade when the illegal immigrant population did not rise precipitously was during the 2001 recession, suggesting that in both cases, the declining economy was an important factor.

Less clear is what portion of the sudden slowdown is because of a drop-off in new illegal arrivals as opposed to departures, deaths or changes to legal status among those already here. (The Census Bureau does not ask people their immigration status, so researchers must use various methods to estimate the size of the illegal immigrant population).

An October study by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center estimated that the annual number of illegal immigrants coming into the United States plummeted from about 800,000 a year during the first half of the decade to about 500,000 a year during the second half. Similarly, the Migration Policy Institute study noted that a survey by Mexico's official statistics agency found the rate of migration from Mexico to the United States each spring has slowed from 14.6 people per 1,000 residents in 2006 to 8.4 per 1,000 residents last year. Another study cited in the report found that since 2001, the number of illegal immigrants apprehended along the Southern border has risen and fallen in tandem with the employment rate, which measures the demand for labor.

Some analysts have speculated that illegal immigrants might also begin leaving in significant numbers because of the combination of stepped-up enforcement by federal and local authorities and the recession's disproportionate impact on illegal immigrants, who are more likely to work in the most affected industries. However, despite some anecdotal reports, Papademetriou and co-author Aaron Terrazas could find no statistical evidence of a recent increase in the number of immigrants, illegal or otherwise, returning to Mexico, which sends the largest share of immigrants, or other sending nations, since the start of the recession in December 2007.

The report noted that the International Monetary Fund expects economic growth in Mexico to slow from 4.9 percent in 2006 to 1.8 percent this year, greatly reducing the incentive of illegal Mexican immigrants to return. Similarly, the Mexican peso has lost 22 percent of its value against the dollar between Dec. 1, 2007, and Dec. 1, 2008, which has greatly increased the value of the dollars Mexican immigrants in the United States send home, even if they are unable to earn as many of them.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company