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A Shifting Tide: Recent Trends in the Illegal Immigrant Population

July 1, 2009
By Steven A. Camarota and Karen Zeigler

This Backgrounder & Report uses Census Bureau data to show that the number of less-educated young Hispanic immigrants in the country has declined significantly.

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This Backgrounder & Report uses Census Bureau data to show that the number of less-educated young Hispanic immigrants in the country has declined significantly. The evidence indicates that the illegal population declined after July 2007 and then rebounded somewhat in the summer of 2008 before resuming its decline in the fall of 2008 and into the first quarter of 2009. Both increased immigration enforcement and the recession seem to explain this decline. There is evidence that the decline was caused by both fewer illegal immigrants coming and an increase in the number returning home. However, this pattern does not apply to the legal immigrant population, which has not fallen significantly.

Among the findings:

  • Our best estimate is that the illegal population declined 13.7 percent (1.7 million) from a peak of 12.5 million in the summer of 2007 to 10.8 million in the first quarter of 2009. 
     
  • If we compare the first quarter of 2007 to the first quarter of 2009, the implied decline is 1.3 million (10.9 percent). 
     
  • By design, these estimates produce results similar to those from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS estimates of the illegal population show a 1.5 percent decline between January 1, 2007, and January 1, 2008. 
     
  • There is evidence that the number of new illegal immigrants arriving has fallen by about one-third in the last two years compared to earlier in this decade. 
     
  • There is also evidence that the number of illegal immigrants returning home has more than doubled in the last two years compared to earlier in this decade. 
     
  • While migration patterns have fundamentally changed, it must be remembered that the overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants have not left the country, and tens of thousands of new illegal immigrants continue to settle in the country each year.
     
  • Our analysis shows that only the illegal immigrant population has declined. The legalimmigrant population does not show the same decline. 
     
  • The fact that the legal immigrant population does not show the same decline is an indication that stepped up enforcement has played a role. 
     
  • Another indication that enforcement has played a role in the decline is that the illegal immigrant population began falling before there was a significant rise in their unemployment rate. 
     
  • While the decline began before unemployment among illegal immigrants rose, unemployment among illegal immigrants has increased dramatically and must now be playing a significant role in reducing their numbers. 
     
  • There is evidence that the illegal population rose in the summer of 2007, while Congress was considering legalizing illegal immigrants. When that legislation failed to pass, the illegal population quickly began a dramatic fall.
     
  • There is no way to know if the current trend will continue. Given President Obama’s stated desire to legalize illegal immigrants and his backing away from enforcement efforts, it seems likely that when the economy recovers, the illegal population will resume its growth.
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Immigration