At a time when illegal immigration has returned to the political spotlight, figures released Wednesday show a sharp decline in the number of undocumented migrants crossing the U.S. border, in what researchers are calling the "first significant reversal" in 20 years.
The total number of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. dropped to 11.1 million in 2009, down from a peak of 12 million in 2007, according to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan Washington-based group that studies the nation's Latino population. The report echoes the findings of a study released in February by the Department of Homeland Security.
About 300,000 illegal immigrants entered the U.S. each year from 2007 to 2009, down from the roughly 850,000 that entered annually from 2000 to 2005, according to the Pew report.
The number of illegal immigrants coming from Mexico has remained steady over the last several years, but there has been a significant drop in illegal immigrants from the Caribbean, Central America and South America, the study found.
California still holds the largest concentration of illegal immigrants in the nation with 2.6 million, but has seen a steady decrease in this population in recent years as job-seeking migrants flocked to states such as Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Florida and Virginia. But those states are also reporting similar declines in their illegal migrant populations, according to the report.
The Pew study is based on census and government labor statistics through March 2009. Researchers estimated the size of the illegal immigrant population by comparing the foreign-born population in the United States with the legal resident population and subtracting the difference.
Experts say there are a variety of reasons for the slowdown, including the recession and increased border enforcement.
The economy is the biggest driver for illegal immigration, said Frank Bean, director of UC Irvine's Center for Research on Immigration, Population and Public Policy. In the economic downturn, jobs are harder to come by, Bean said, particularly in construction.
"Those jobs have disappeared and have mostly stayed gone," he said.
But Bean said he did not expect the downward trend to continue once the economy rebounds. "The same reason for illegal immigrants to come to the U.S. has always been there: the need for work," he said. "As soon as work is available again, people will start coming again."
The Obama administration cited the study's figures as evidence that its efforts to strengthen border security are working. The government has cracked down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, and recently 1,200 National Guard troops were deployed along the U.S.-Mexico border to deter unlawful entry.
"The 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, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement.
The U.S. government has also stepped up removal of illegal immigrants, with 387,790 deported in fiscal 2009, compared with 291,060 in 2007.
Immigration control advocates said the decline in the number of migrants illegally entering the U.S. showed that tougher enforcement works.
"What this points to is that the illegal immigration population is not some unstoppable phenomenon," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based group that favors immigration restrictions. "Illegal immigrants are getting the message that the party may be over."
Krikorian said the slowdown was evidence that illegal immigration can be reduced by restricting job opportunities and that legalizing the undocumented population was not necessary to solve the problem. The possibility of some type of amnesty program for illegal immigrants in the U.S. has long been a flash point in the heated debate over comprehensive immigration reform.
"You don't get rid of illegal immigration in one year," Krikorian said. "You get it to start shrinking by making it hard to stick around. You make it as difficult as possible to get a job here and make it as hard as possible to make a living here as an illegal immigrant."
Although some point to the Pew study as evidence that illegal immigrants are choosing to return to their home countries, the study's researchers said that they saw no evidence that people were leaving the U.S. and that the decreased illegal immigration figures stemmed from less migration into the country.
Father Richard Estrada of La Placita church in Los Angeles, which has long served as a sanctuary for immigrants, said illegal migrants were continuing to enter the U.S. despite the recession. He said that although tougher enforcement at the border was making it harder for people to cross, it had created a ripe market for human smugglers. "This thing about increased border safety is an illusion," he said.
Raymundo Herrera, 46, who sells popsicles and ice cream sandwiches in East Los Angeles, said he had seen other vendors leave the United States because it was harder to make a living in the tough economy. Herrera, who is undocumented, sends money to his wife and 8-year-old daughter in Mexico every week, but he has also struggled to make ends meet. He said he would like to return to Mexico, but he cannot afford to do so.
Others say that the lure of the U.S. economy, even in a downturn, is enough to make the journey. "When the economy picks up, people are going to start coming," said Hector, a 35-year-old bike messenger who declined to give his last name. "They always have."
As for those migrants coming from Central and South America, Bean, of UC Irvine, said increased violence in Mexico linked to the drug war was making it increasingly dangerous to cross the border, and could possibly deter some immigrants from making the journey. Last month, 72 migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Brazil trying to cross illegally into the U.S. were killed by suspected drug cartel hit men.
Times staff writer Nicole Santa Cruz contributed to this report.