California sees decline in immigrants in US illegally, Pew says

Undocumented Guatemalan immigrant Fidel Rodriguez looks out the window before landing on a deportation flight from Mesa, Arizona on June 24, 2011 in flight to Guatemala City, Guatemala. According to Pew, the number of immigrants entering the U.S. illegally remained unchanged from 2009 to 2012, but a shift was seen geographically — East Coast states saw gains, while states closer to the border, like California and Arizona, saw declines.
Undocumented Guatemalan immigrant Fidel Rodriguez looks out the window before landing on a deportation flight from Mesa, Arizona on June 24, 2011 in flight to Guatemala City, Guatemala. According to Pew, the number of immigrants entering the U.S. illegally remained unchanged from 2009 to 2012, but a shift was seen geographically — East Coast states saw gains, while states closer to the border, like California and Arizona, saw declines.
John Moore/Getty Images

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Fewer immigrants are arriving in the United States from Mexico and the number without legal status has been on the decline in California, according to newly-released data from the Pew Research Center. 

California's unauthorized immigrant population dropped by approximately 90,000 people between 2009 and 2012, and several other Western states also showed a population decline, including Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon.

Pew senior demographer Jeffrey Passel told KPCC that the decline in migration from Mexico has played a role in California's shift, along with economics.

"The big drop in the Mexican numbers over the last five years is a factor, a big factor, in California, and part of the reason they are not coming is the lack of job opportunities available to them," Passel said.

This is part of a longer-term trend in the state, he said, with newcomers over the last several years gravitating to other states with better job opportunities, as immigrant networks have spread.

Meanwhile, as fewer Mexicans have arrived, immigrants from other countries have been arriving in greater numbers. Mexicans still make up the bulk of immigrants in the U.S. illegally — roughly 52 percent, down from 56 percent in 2009 — but increasingly immigrants from other countries, particularly from Central America, Asia and the Caribbean, are adding to that population.

New Jersey, Florida and Pennsylvania were among seven states showing an increase in unauthorized immigration between 2009 and 2012. Drawing from the Pew research, AP reported that New Jersey had the biggest gain, jumping 75,000 to 525,000 as many immigrants from India and Ecuador crossed illegally into the state.

It was followed by Florida, increasing 50,000 to 925,000. Pennsylvania was third, rising 30,000 to 170,000. It saw increases from several regions including Honduras, India and the Dominican Republic, many of whom moved into the rapidly diversifying southeastern part of the state.

Maryland, Virginia, Idaho and Nebraska also showed increases in unauthorized immigration.

Nationwide, the estimated number of people believed to be living in the U.S. illegally is unchanged from 2009: 11.2 million, according to the study.

The nonpartisan Pew Research Center report comes just as President Barack Obama is considering the use of executive action to initiate changes in immigration law that could protect from deportation as many as 5 million immigrants here illegally. Republicans in Congress have vowed to fight the expected action.

Pew said it was too soon to say whether the shifting pattern of illegal immigration indicated a longer-term trend.  Illegal immigration peaked in 2007 at 12.2 million before the U.S. recession hit. Since then, fewer Mexicans have crossed into the U.S. while many here have chosen to return, due to a combination of factors including an improving Mexican economy, heightened U.S. attention on border enforcement and an aging Mexican workforce, AP reported.

"We've seen a continued decline in the number of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico, which shows up in two key indicators: The number of new arrivals from Mexico has slowed, and at the same time, the number of Mexicans apprehended has reached a 40-year low," said Passel.

The Pew analysis is based on census data. Because the Census Bureau does not ask people about their immigration status, the estimate on immigrants living in the U.S. illegally is derived largely by subtracting the estimated legal immigrant population from the total foreign-born population. It is a method that has been used by the government and Pew for many years and is generally accepted.

This story has been updated.