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US Unauthorized Immigration Flows Are Down Sharply Since Mid-Decade

by Jeffrey S. Passel and D'Vera Cohn for the Pew Hispanic Center

Executive Summary. The annual inflow of unauthorized immigrants to the United States was nearly two-thirds smaller in the March 2007 to March 2009 period than it had been from March 2000 to March 2005, according to new estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center.

This sharp decline has contributed to an overall reduction of 8% in the number of unauthorized immigrants currently living in the U.S. -- to 11.1 million in March 2009 from a peak of 12 million in March 2007, according to the estimates. The decrease represents the first significant reversal in the growth of this population over the past two decades.1 

The Pew Hispanic Center's analysis also finds that the most marked decline in the population of unauthorized immigrants has been among those who come from Latin American countries other than Mexico. From 2007 to 2009, the size of this group from the Caribbean, Central America and South America decreased 22%.

By contrast, the Mexican unauthorized population (which accounts for about 60% of all unauthorized immigrants) peaked in 2007 at 7 million and has since leveled off. The number of unauthorized immigrants from the rest of the world did not change.

Even though the size of the Mexican unauthorized population living in the United States has not changed significantly since 2007, the inflows from that country have fallen off sharply in recent years.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center's estimates, an average of 150,000 unauthorized immigrants from Mexico arrived annually during the March 2007 to March 2009 period -- 70% below the annual average of 500,000 that prevailed during the first half of the decade.

The recent decrease in the unauthorized population has been especially notable along the nation's Southeast coast and in its Mountain West, according to the new estimates.

The number of unauthorized immigrants in Florida, Nevada and Virginia shrank from 2008 to 2009. Other states may have had declines, but they fell within the margin of error for these estimates.

Not counting Florida and Virginia, the unauthorized immigrant population also declined in the area encompassing the rest of the South Atlantic division that extends between Delaware and Georgia.2

In addition to the decline in Nevada, three other Mountain states -- Arizona, Colorado and Utah -- experienced a decrease in their combined unauthorized immigrant population from 2008 to 2009.

As shown in the accompanying chart, there may have been a decline in the unauthorized population between 2008 (11.6 million) and 2009 (11.1 million), but this finding is not conclusive because of the margin of error in these estimates.

Despite the recent decline, the population of unauthorized immigrants was nearly a third larger (32%) in 2009 than in 2000, when it numbered 8.4 million. The size of this group has tripled since 1990, when it was 3.5 million.

During the first half of the decade, an average of about 850,000 new unauthorized immigrants entered each year, increasing the unauthorized population from 8.4 million in 2000 to 11.1 million in 2005. Since then, the average annual inflow dropped to about 550,000 per year from March 2005 to March 2007 and declined further to an average of 300,000 per year for March 2007 to March 2009. As a result, the unauthorized population in 2009 returned to the level it had been in 2005.

The unauthorized population is not a static group of people. Each year, some unauthorized immigrants arrive and some return to their countries of origin. This population can also be reduced by deaths or by conversions to legal status.

Our method of analysis does not permit a precise estimation of how many in this population emigrate, achieve legal status or die. The underlying data are consistent with a previous Pew Hispanic Center report that found a sharply decreased flow of immigrants from Mexico to the United States since mid-decade but no evidence of a recent increase in the number of Mexican-born migrants returning home from the U.S. However, return flows to other countries may have increased.

The estimates presented here document trends in the unauthorized population and flows into the country, but the analysis does not explain why these changes occurred. During the period covered by the analysis, there have been major shifts in the level of immigration enforcement and in enforcement strategies, as well as large swings in the U.S. economy. The U.S. economy entered a recession late in 2007, at a time when border enforcement was increasing. Economic and demographic conditions in sending countries and strategies employed by potential migrants also change. All of these undoubtedly contribute to the overall magnitude of immigration flows. But the data in this report do not allow quantification of these factors and are not designed to explain why flows and population totals declined.

Other main findings of this report include:

  • Unauthorized immigrants accounted for 28% of the nation's foreign-born population in 2009, a decline from 31% in 2007.
  • Mexico accounted for 60% of unauthorized immigrants in 2009, or 6.7 million people. Other Latin American nations accounted for 20% of the total, or 2.2 million people. South and East Asia accounted for 11% of the total, or 1.2 million people.
  • In 2009, 59% 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% in 1990, as unauthorized immigrants have dispersed to new settlement areas.
  • Nearly half of unauthorized immigrants living in the country in 2009 -- 47%, or 5.2 million people -- arrived in 2000 or later.
  • The number of male unauthorized immigrants peaked in 2007 at 6.3 million and declined to 5.8 million in 2009. The number of female unauthorized immigrants, 4.2 million in 2009, is roughly the same as it was in 2007.
  • The number of children who are unauthorized, 1.1 million in 2009, declined slightly over the decade. By contrast, the population of U.S.-born children with at least one unauthorized parent nearly doubled from 2000 to 2009, when they numbered 4 million.
  • There were 7.8 million unauthorized immigrants in the labor force in 2009, or 5.1% of the total. The size of the unauthorized labor force peaked in 2007 and declined in both 2008 and 2009. There were 7 million unauthorized immigrants employed in March 2009.
  • States with the largest shares of immigrants in the labor force are Nevada (9.4%), California (9.3%), Texas (8.7%) and New Jersey (8.7%).
  • 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%, 9.2% and 9.1%, respectively.

Read the full report and view an interactive map of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S.

1. Warren (2003) includes annual population estimates for the 1990s.
2. Not including Florida and Virginia, the remainder of the South Atlantic Division consists of Delaware, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia. The decline is statistically significant for the group of six states and D.C., but not for any individual state.

About The Author

Jeffrey S. Passel is a Senior Demographer at Pew Hispanic Center. A nationally known expert on immigration to the United States and the demography racial and ethnic groups, Passel formerly served as principal research associate at the Urban Institute's Labor, Human Services and Population Center. Passel has authored numerous studies on immigrant populations in America, focusing on such topics as undocumented immigration, the economic and fiscal impact of the foreign born, and the impact of welfare reform on immigrant populations.

D'Vera Cohn is a Senior Writer at Pew Research Center.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.

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