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A group of migrants arrested crossing the border near El Centro, Calif. in August 2005, when illegal immigration to the U.S. was at a high point. After years of decline, a new report suggests a possible uptick in the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S.
The sagging economy and immigration enforcement are among the factors that played a likely role in the slowing of illegal immigration to the United States in recent years, and with it a drop in the nation's estimated unauthorized immigrant population. But that may be changing.
A report released Monday by the Pew Hispanic Center suggests that the slide has stopped — and for the first time in years, there could be an uptick in the number of immigrants living in the country illegally.
According to the report, the estimated number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. was 11.7 million in March 2012. That's still less than the peak number of 12.2 million estimated by Pew in 2007, but it's an increase over the low of 11.3 million calculated during 2009.
The decline in illegal immigration that began after 2007 followed years of steady growth since 1990, said Jeffrey Passel, a Pew senior demographer who co-authored the report.
"We don't know why the people left, of course, but it coincides with the recession, and we have seen historically that unauthorized flows are very sensitive to the U.S. economy," Passel told KPCC's Take Two.
The changes aren't uniform — some states, such as California, are not seeing an increase. And even the uptick noted in other regions may fall within the study's margin of error, as the numbers are calculated from census data. But it's an indication that as the economy rebounds, people living in the U.S. without papers are at least staying put.
The news is bound to play a role in the continuing debate over immigration reform in Congress, where House Republicans have resisted supporting a Senate-approved plan that would grant a path to U.S. citizenship for many of those living here illegally now.
While acknowledging that the economy plays a role, Steve Camarota of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies said the talk of legalization for several months now might also be encouraging some people to stay or to come to the U.S. The center advocates for tighter immigration restrictions.
"The administration has very clearly stated its desire to give legal status to illegal immigrants," Camarota said. "That, too, tends to make people tend to want to come or not go, because they are hoping that if that passes, then they too will benefit."
The study also breaks out trends in the half-dozen states with the nation's biggest unauthorized immigrant populations — first and foremost California, which has the largest overall number.
According to the report, last year California was home to 2.45 million unauthorized immigrants; there were 2.8 million in 2007. The decline appears to have bottomed out in 2010 and 2011. But there's no evidence that the numbers are ticking back up, even as the economy shows signs of recovery.
This shouldn't be surprising, though. Over the years, California has lost the appeal it once had as a first-stop destination. Since the 1990s, growing numbers of immigrants and non-immigrants are choosing to live in other states.
In 2009, the Public Policy Institute of California reported on the movement of immigrants away from California: "As fewer immigrants locate to California and to other traditionally immigrant-rich areas, more are choosing to live in states and cities with little history of immigration."
This included destinations in the Midwest and the South, where Latin American immigrant networks, mostly Mexican, have become well-established and the cost of living is less. What initially began as immigrants leaving California for other states has led to these regions becoming destinations in their own right, with many newcomers bypassing California altogether.
"California's primary role in immigration to the United States, while it remains strong, is much less than it used to be," said Hans Johnson, a demographer with PPIC.
Another interesting wrinkle involves California's changing demographics: In the past five years, immigration from Asia to California is also having an effect on the state's share of unauthorized immigrants, Johnson said.
While there are an estimated 1.3 million unauthorized Asian immigrants nationwide, many of them overstaying their visas, the majority of newcomers from Asia tend to arrive either on family-based visas or skilled worker visas, Johnson said. This translates into more newcomers arriving in California with legal status, he said, which in turn shifts the makeup of the state's immigrant population overall.
Still, the unauthorized workers who help power California's agricultural, manufacturing, service, hospitality and construction industries haven't exactly left in large numbers. According to a February 2013 PPIC report, there were about 1.85 million of them in the state's labor force, accounting for about one-tenth of the workforce. Unauthorized immigrants are an especially big part of Southern California's economy: Close to 1 million (about 900,000) live in Los Angeles County alone.