Number of Foreign-Born U.S. Residents Drops
Construction, Manufacturing Job Cuts and Enforcement Cited in Loss of Hispanic Immigrants

By Carol Morello and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The number of foreign-born people living in the United States declined last year, particularly among low-skilled immigrants from Mexico, according to a Census Bureau report released Tuesday.

The immigrant losses were particularly pronounced in California, Florida, Arizona and Michigan, all states where the recession hit early and hard. The metropolitan Washington area gained about 1,000 foreign-born residents, but a jump in the Asian population was offset by a significant drop in Mexicans and Salvadorans, the largest Hispanic immigrant group in the region.

The nationwide total of about 38 million foreign-born people decreased slightly, by just under 100,000. That brought down the share of the overall population that is foreign-born from 12.6 percent to 12.5 percent. Although the drop is relatively small, it was the first official decline in at least four years.

Demographers and other analysts said immigration is bound to pick up once the economy improves, although some said stricter enforcement of immigration laws played a role in the decline.

"This is clearly a downturn related to the economy in the U.S.," said demographer William Frey with the Brookings Institution. "What looks like negative immigration is something that, two or three years ago, you wouldn't have expected at all. It shows immigrants respond to the economy."

The statistics were part of the American Community Survey, an annual Census Bureau report that also includes data on household incomes and health insurance. The survey, conducted year-round, is based on a sample of about 3 million addresses.

The Washington area remains among the wealthiest places in the country. The median household income of $85,824 last year -- up from $83,200 in 2007 -- is second only to San Jose. Blacks, whites and Hispanics in the region are all on average the highest earners in the nation, while Asians here are the third highest, behind their counterparts in San Jose and Raleigh, N.C.

For the first time, the survey measured how many people do not have health insurance. Nationally, 15 percent are uninsured, but the figure varied widely among states. Texas had the most uninsured, at 24 percent, and Massachusetts had the least, at 4 percent.

The Washington area reflected big disparities among adults ages 18 to 64. In Prince George's County, for instance, 20 percent of adults in that age group have no insurance, compared with 10 percent in the District and 9 percent in Arlington County. About 16 percent of adults in Virginia have no insurance, as do 15 percent in Maryland.

The new statistics on foreign-born residents confirm findings by other researchers showing an ongoing drop-off in immigrants from Mexico, who comprise a third of all foreign-born residents and two-thirds of all Hispanic immigrants.

The Census found about 325,000 fewer immigrants from Mexico last year, a fall-off of 2.8 percent. Without that decline, there would have been a small increase in the overall number of immigrants.

Latinos decreased in all regions except the Northeast, where the population stayed flat. In the Washington area, the Mexico-born population dropped about 9,600, a net loss of 19 percent. Salvadorans were down about 10,700, a 7.4 percent drop. Together, they negated the addition of 16,500 Asians, a 4.4 percent increase.

A study this summer by the Pew Hispanic Center concluded that since 2006, there has been a sharp decline in new immigrants from Mexico, while the number who return home every year has stayed about the same.

Many Hispanic immigrants work in construction and manufacturing, and they have been particularly affected by the economic downturn, said Mark Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center.

Some might have been deterred by stricter immigration enforcement, too, he noted. In a 2008 Pew survey, 10 percent of foreign-born Hispanics said they had been stopped by authorities and asked for their immigration status, as had 8 percent of Hispanics born in the United States.

"Many Hispanics worry that they themselves, or someone they know, may be deported," Lopez said.

But Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors fewer immigrants, said his research suggests almost 1 million immigrants left the country in the past year alone, most of them Hispanic.

"People continue to come, but significantly fewer are coming, and many more are going home," he said. "It appears the decline began before the economy went south. That strongly suggests increased enforcement played a significant role."

Others contend that the floundering economy is solely to blame and that the drop is temporary.

"We've had a lot of enforcement in play for years," said Michael Cassidy, head of the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a think tank that analyzes the impact of policy on low-income Virginians. "I think that points to the economic reasons behind the shift, as opposed to the enforcement reasons. When there are no jobs, people aren't coming and they're not staying."

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