Illegal immigrants are moving in unprecedented numbers to the southeastern United States, choosing that area over traditional “destination states” such as California, according to a study released Tuesday.
The study by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, also shows that for the last 10 years, illegal immigration has far outstripped its legal counterpart. Most of the country’s estimated 10.3 million undocumented immigrants have arrived since 1990, the study found, at an average of 500,000 a year.
The findings underscore how badly the immigration system is broken and how difficult an overhaul may be, analysts say.
“This report shows that the illegal alien population is becoming an integral part of the communities and workforces in a larger part of the country,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a centrist public policy center in Washington.
“This is much more of a mainstream phenomenon than people are thinking. It’s not something you can either flip the ‘stop’ switch on or keep going with,” he said.
The report paints a picture of an immigrant community that is young, poor and largely Latino. The immigrants are almost always employed and live in family groups that the reports’ authors described as “mixed,” consisting of U.S. citizens and people here illegally.
Because illegal immigrants gave birth to children in the U.S., “most of the children living in these families are U.S. citizens,” said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center. He noted that such a family structure has implications for proposed guest worker programs that require immigrants to return home after a set period.
“The presence of wives and kids in the U.S. and the fact that they are working suggests that, by and large, this population may be reluctant to leave us,” Suro said.
Of the almost 14 million people in families in which the head of the family or the spouse is here illegally, 3.1 million are children who hold U.S. citizenship, the study found.
The study analyzed data from the March 2004 Current Population Survey conducted by the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That survey estimated the general U.S. population at 293 million, with 34 million of those people born outside the country. Of those foreign-born residents, the Pew study estimates, almost a third -- 10.3 million -- are here without papers.
The study calculates that the undocumented population increased by half a million annually through the 1990s and may have grown even more quickly in the last few years of the decade. At the same time, migration patterns changed.
Traditionally, illegal immigrants headed for California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois or New Jersey. Since 1990, they have been going in droves to states in the Southeast, West and Midwest. By 2004, the number of illegal immigrants outside the traditional six destination states had risen almost tenfold, from about 400,000 to almost 3.9 million.
They are moving to North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Arizona, which is now home to the country’s fourth-largest illegal immigrant population. Maryland, Utah and Colorado have also become favored destinations.
Pew demographer Jeffrey S. Passel, who prepared the report, said this trend has been apparent for about 10 years, spurred in part by changes in immigration to California.
California’s illegal population has grown to 2.4 million since 1990, but the state now has a smaller percentage of the country’s undocumented immigrants. In 1990, 45% of illegal immigrants in the U.S. lived in California. By 2004, that share had fallen to 24%.
“While California continues to receive migrants, unauthorized and legal, more of them are moving out of California,” Passel said. “California seems to be a jumping point. This is a change that occurred in the 1990s, and that’s part of what started and fueled this geographic diversification.”
The migrants leaving California for other states are mostly Mexican, Passel said. The study estimates that Mexicans make up 57% of the undocumented population, and 24% come from other Latin American countries.
Undocumented immigrants make up 4.3% of the labor force, the study found, with about half working in the hospitality, construction or manufacturing industries.
They earn much less than native-born Americans or legal immigrants; the average family makes $27,400 a year, compared with earnings of about $48,000 for the other groups.
In general, illegal immigrants are less educated than native-born Americans, with only 25% of those here attaining a high school education. Their children are also more likely to drop out of high school than legal immigrants or native-born Americans, the report found.
And despite the stereotype of single young men coming to the U.S. to find jobs, only 46% of undocumented adult men are single. The rest are married or part of a family group. Among women, only 1 in 5, or about 750,000, are single and unattached.
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A shift to the Southeast
A recent study shows that many undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are moving to the Southeast and that the majority have arrived since 1990. California, which 15 years ago had almost half the illegal immigrants in the U.S., now has less than a quarter.
When they arrived
Redistribution from six large states
Illegal immigrants as a percentage of total U.S. population
Source: Pew Hispanic Center