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By the numbers: Illegal immigration might be down, but why and what does it mean?

At the beginning of the month, a report came out from the Pew Hispanic Center reporting that illegal immigration into the country had declined "sharply since mid-decade."

According to the study, which used U.S. Census Bureau data, the number of undocumented immigrants in the country dropped 8 percent, from 12 million in March 2007 to 11.1 million in March 2009. 

"The decrease represents the first significant reversal in the growth of this population over the past two decades," the study reports.

Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Policy Center, cautions about overstating the decline. "I don't think it's really a significant drop," Giovagnoli says. "Certainly, 8 percent is something, but if you look at where we were in 1990, then at the numbers of illegal immigration in 2009, the number of people here illegally has tripled."

Ira Mehlman, a spokesperson with FAIR, Federation for American Immigration Reform, in Washington, D.C., disagrees. FAIR figures 13 million illegal immigrants live in the country, as opposed to Pew's 11 million. 

Still, he says, "Eight percent of that many people is a lot of folks."

The study doesn't seek to answer the "why" of it all, but it does point to two trends that might: increased border enforcement and a downturn in the economy.

A rising tide ...

Since 2007, the recession has been the story, affecting everything from housing to savings to employment.

The economy has also affected immigration and the lives of people who are here undocumented, at least anecdotally, says Jennifer Rafanan, executive director of Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, MIRA, a coalition of organizations that works to reform immigration.

"That's probably a big piece of it," she says.

Largely, Rafanan says, people coming to the U.S. illegally are doing so for work, often coming from very difficult circumstances. When migrants settle in an area, they tend to let friends and family in their home country know if there are jobs, she says. Or no jobs.

"In a lot of cases, the word really spread that there aren't any job opportunities," Rafanan says.

And with the economy in a downturn, she points out, more Americans have been willing to return to lower-wage jobs that immigrants typically fill.

"It's all interwoven," she says.

At Puentes de Esperanza, a community-based ministry in southern Illinois, director Nereida Avendano also sees their members becoming underemployed when their hours are cut.

Another point in the study: "The unemployment rate for unauthorized immigrants of all ages in March 2009 was higher than that of U.S.-born workers or legal immigrants -- 10.4 percent, 9.2 percent and 9.1 percent, respectively."

Over the borderline

While the economy has declined along with the number of those coming here illegally, the budgets for border protection and enforcement have gone up.

"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," said deputy press secretary Matt Chandler in a statement in response to Pew's study. "We are cracking down on employers who hire illegal labor, seizures of illicit goods are up across the board, criminal alien removals are at an all-time high, the Border Patrol is better staffed than at any time in its 85-year history, and the southwest border is more secure than ever before."

From 1992 to 2009, the annual budget of U.S. Border Patrol increased by nine times, to $3 billion, with border patrol agents at the southwest border with Mexico increasing by about five times, to 16,974, according to the Immigration Policy Center.

It’s true, says Amany Ragab Hacking, an attorney and assistant clinical professor at Saint Louis University School of Law, that security issues have focused more attention on the borders and on who’s doing what inside the country. But she doesn’t think the increase in budget and enforcement is a direct cause of the drop in illegal immigration.

"Border enforcement has been increasing over not just the last few years, but over 20 years," agrees Rafanan. "And I don't think that necessarily that really helped keep us safe, but maybe it is creating that climate of fear that might deter people."

Giovagnoli thinks the economy has more to do with the decline in illegal immigration than enforcement.

To FAIR's Mehlman, the reason for the drop in numbers is probably somewhere in the middle. The Bush administration made a concerted effort on enforcement coinciding with the beginning of Pew’s study. While Mehlman adds that the Obama administration hasn’t focused as much on enforcement, especially internally, the economy may have done that instead.

It’s not just enforcement that matters, but policies, too. Giovagnoli thinks some policies that focus on enforcement haven’t deterred people from coming, and maybe made them more likely to stay out of status if they’re already here.

There have also been steps toward deterring people from overstaying their visas, including bans that span three to 10 years, or even lifetime bans, for being here undocumented.

"In some ways, the punitive laws created then gave incentive to stay for people who might otherwise be willing to go home," she says.

In southern Illinois, that unwillingness to move around may be what Avendano’s seeing these days. Migrant workers, for example, are not leaving.

"They’re staying," Avendano says. "It’s cheaper for them to stay."

The services offered by Puentes De Esperanza include Migrant Head Start, a teen pregnancy program and Latino special services. And despite an overall drop nationwide in illegal immigration, things haven't slowed down, Avendano says.

"We're busy all day."

Her organization doesn't ask people's immigration status, she says, and she wouldn't venture a guess, but about 98 percent are from Mexico.

While the study finds that illegal immigration from Mexico has leveled off and actually decreased from other parts of Latin America, it also notes the following:

"In 2009, 59 percent of unauthorized immigrants resided in California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois and New Jersey. However, the share living in those states has declined from 80 percent in 1990, as unauthorized immigrants have dispersed to new settlement areas."

Missouri and Illinois are among those places, Avendano says. Many people coming to Puentes De Esperanza aren't coming directly from Mexico. "We see some people coming from California, Ohio, Chicago, the northern part of Illinois," she says.

Like Americans, they're moving here because the cost of living is lower, there's less crime, and despite the economy, some jobs are available, namely in agriculture and factories, but also in the restaurant and hotel industries and construction.

"I always have a smile on my face when I go to a Chinese restaurant and all the cooks are Mexican," Avendano says.

For More information

Click here to read the whole report from Pew. 

For more local coverage on immigration, go to KETC's Explore Homeland.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

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