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Friday, September 3, 2010

Undocumented immigrant numbers in decline; Economic downturn, stepped-up law enforcement limit illegal immigration

Herald Salinas Bureau

The number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States declined considerably in the past couple of years, a fact experts attribute to the economic downturn and stepped-up law enforcement.

Though the number of undocumented immigrants declined from 12 million in March 2007 to 11.1 million in March 2009, the percentage of immigrants living in California remained static, according to a report released Wednesday by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Nearly one in four undocumented immigrants in the nation lives in California.

The Obama administration was quick to take credit for the 8 percent nationwide decline.

"This administration's unprecedented commitment of manpower, technology and infrastructure to the Southwest border has been a major factor in this dramatic drop in illegal crossings," Matt Chandler, deputy press secretary for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said in a prepared statement.

While enforcement and deportations have increased during the Obama administration, the economic downturn also has had a significant effect in slowing immigration. With the lure of jobs — one of the most powerful magnets to attract newcomers — gone, the number of people coming to the United States illegally has declined.

"That's more tied up to the ups and downs of the economy," said Madeleine Sumption, policy analyst with the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. "Construction took a massive hit ... and when those jobs had an impact, you obviously expect the influx to decrease."

While an average of 800,000 undocumented people arrived per year from 2000 to 2005, the figure declined to 300,000 annually from 2007 to 2009, according to the Pew Report. Increased enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border played a role, but the number of arrests has been decreasing.

The size of the undocumented population in Monterey County is difficult to estimate, but observers believe it hasn't changed.

The population of Monterey County in general has continued to grow in the past three years by an average of 1 percent per year, according to the California Department of Finance.

Though the economic slump hit the region just as in the rest of the country, people are not leaving. Agriculture, one of the largest employers of undocumented workers, is still the No. 1 industry in the county.

"I haven't heard anything about" workers leaving, said Jim Bogart, president of the Grower-Shipper Association. "The demand for labor is still there."

Jesús López, a farmworker organizer with California Rural Legal Assistance, said though workers are laboring fewer hours, they are still needed.

"I haven't seen people leaving," he said. Harvesting machines demand a set number of farmworkers, López said.

"They can't operate with fewer people, the machine wouldn't work," he said.

In the past, before enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border reached current levels, migrants went home for the winter and came back in the spring. The fear of getting caught and the increased expense of a more difficult border crossing has forced them to stay put and to bring their families to the U.S.

While the decrease of undocumented immigrants is significant, it is a third larger than at the beginning of the decade, when there were an estimated 8.4 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Immigration reform advocates have pushed for legalization for years, but their efforts have been stymied by a vocal segment of the population that maintains legalization is tantamount to rewarding illegal behavior.

"The number is still very high — it's significantly higher than most other advanced industrialized nations because of the geographical proximity with Mexico and Latin America," Sumption said.

"It would be foolish to suggest that concerns about illegal immigrations will disappear because of the decrease in influx. My suspicion is that illegal immigration will continue to be the driving force behind the (legalization) debate."

The Pew study is based on census and government labor statistics through March 2009. Researchers estimated the size of the undocumented immigrant population by comparing the foreign-born population in the United States with the legal resident population and subtracting the difference.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Claudia Meléndez Salinas can be reached at 753-6755 or