Fewer illegal immigrants are coming to Orange County, mostly because of a trying economy coupled with a fortified U.S.-Mexico border that's made crossing into the United States more difficult, a UC Irvine professor who tracks their numbers said earlier this week.
Jack Bean, director of UCI's Center for Research on Immigration, Population and Public Policy, said jobs are harder to come by in Southern California, particularly in the immigrant-heavy construction industry.
It's a fact, he said, that has contributed to the decline in the numbers of illegal immigrants making the trek to the U.S. from Mexico and parts of Central and South America.
But as soon as the economy picks up and the jobs return, Bean predicts more illegal immigrants will the border in search of work.
Bean's comments helped shed some light on a recent report from the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Hispanic Center, which found that the total number of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. dropped to 11.1 million in 2009 — down from a high of 12 million in 2007.
The center, a non-partisan group that studies the nation's Latino population, found that 300,000 illegal immigrants entered the U.S. each year from 2007 to 2009, down from the roughly 850,000 who entered annually from 2000 to 20005.
Bean, an expert immigration patterns, said there was a relatively simple explanation for the drop in numbers: the mortgage and foreclosure crises impact on the housing industry.
"Fewer illegal immigrants are coming because it's hard to get a job in construction," Bean said. "Since 2008 and 2009, there's been a downturn in the housing market. Consequently, the construction industry has fallen off a cliff, not only in Southern California but across the country."
Still, California has the largest concentration of illegal immigrants in the nation, with 2.6 million, according to the Pew study.
The 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, then subtracting the difference.
In Costa Mesa, a few illegal immigrants interviewed on the streets outside of Home Depot on Harbor Boulevard and the U-Haul on Newport Boulevard, said that more and more undocumented workers are staying put where they live and fewer of their cousins and family members are following them to the United States.
"There was a time when we used to just run across near Tijuana," Roberto Vazquez-Guevara, who's been living in the United States illegally and picking up odd jobs in Costa Mesa for more than a decade now, said in Spanish. "Now, Mexicans who live in the far south, and the Guatemalans, are even lucky if they can even make it to the border towns."
Human smuggling isn't what it used to be, Vazquez-Guevara, 49, said as he stood on the corner of Newport Boulevard and the 55 Freeway, hoping to get work from somebody driving by.
Drug cartels, he said, have made life increasingly more difficult near the border, as was the case recently in the slaying of more than 70 migrants south of the town of Reynosa. Most of them were from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Brazil.
And if it's not taking on the drug cartels, then it's U.S. federal agents on the other side.
"It's like a no-man's zone along the border right now," Vazquez-Guevara said.