Number of Illegal Immigrants to U.S. Is Down, Report Finds

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 3, 2008; Page A07

Amid a sluggish economy and stepped-up enforcement of immigration laws, the number of illegal immigrants entering the United States each year has dropped precipitously since the first half of this decade, according to a study released yesterday. The rate of legal immigration remained steady, meanwhile, so that legal arrivals now outnumber illicit ones for the first time in a decade.

The report by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center offers the most detailed picture of the illegal immigrant population to date, and its findings are in line with trends identified in less comprehensive recent analyses by the Department of Homeland Security and the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that advocates stricter limits on immigration.

The Pew report found that the number of illegal immigrants entering the United States has declined from an average of 800,000 a year in 2000-04 to 500,000 a year in 2005-08.

By contrast, the flow of immigrants who are legal permanent residents has remained unchanged at 650,000 a year and has exceeded the number of illegal immigrant arrivals since last year.

The study also found a major slowdown in the growth of the illegal immigrant population that reflects additions to that population and subtractions because of people leaving the country, dying or changing to legal status. From 2000 through 2005, the illegal immigrant population rose by an average of 525,000 people a year. Since then, it has averaged increases of 275,000 a year. Over the past year, little to no increase appears to have occurred.

"This was a population that was growing very rapidly and substantially for at least 15 years, and the growth has essentially come to a halt," said Jeffrey S. Passel, co-author of the study.

Despite the slowdown, the number of illegal immigrants remains at an all-time high, up more than 40 percent from about 8.4 million in 2000 to 11.9 million in March, according to the Pew study. Illegal immigrants make up about 4 percent of the U.S. population and about 30 percent of its foreign-born residents. More than four out of 10, or 5.3 million, arrived since the start of the decade.

About four out of five illegal immigrants come from Latin American countries, mainly Mexico. Since last year, the number from Mexico appears to have leveled off at 7 million, and the number from other Latin American countries has fallen.

The U.S. Census Bureau does not ask people their immigration status. So Passel and co-author D'Vera Cohn estimated the size of the illegal immigrant population by subtracting the number of visas, permanent residency permits and naturalizations from the number of foreigners tallied by the bureau in 2000 and a smaller annual survey conducted each March.

Passel and Cohn said their study does not explain the causes of the changes in the illegal immigrant population. But they said a possible factor is immigrants' growing concern about enforcement. They also pointed to another Pew study, which indicates that the recent slump in U.S. economic growth has had a disproportionate effect on foreign-born Hispanic workers even as economic growth in Mexico and other Latin American nations has been stable.

According to that study, which was released yesterday, the median annual income of non-citizen immigrant households declined by 7.3 percent from 2006 to 2007. (Nearly half of such households are headed by an illegal immigrant, and most are Hispanic.) During the same period, the median annual income of all U.S. household rose by 1.3 percent.

The study's author, Rakesh Kochhar, speculated that non-citizen immigrants are more vulnerable to economic shifts because they tend to have little education and work in blue-collar jobs in construction or service industries "that are more immediately susceptible to economic ups and downs than white collar work."

Several local immigrant advocates said that although they have not seen evidence that the number of illegal immigrants in the Washington area is changing, many here are struggling to make ends meet.

Nancy Lyall, a coordinator of the immigrant advocacy group Mexicans Without Borders, said day laborers who gather at a 7-Eleven in Woodbridge recently asked the organization for donations of food.

"Normally, we might get those kinds of requests in the winter, when the weather prevents people from working," she said. "And these are not people who ask us for something unless they really need it. So to get this request now, when the weather is still good, is a sign of how much people are hurting."

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