In five years of social outreach at Our Lady Queen of Angels church in Los Angeles, Guillermo Armenta has always seen more parishioners stream into this historic haven for illegal immigrants than leave. Until now.
In the last few months, he said, nearly a dozen parishioners have told them they plan to return to their homelands because jobs in construction, restaurants and the janitorial trade have dried up here. Others say they are discouraging their relatives from coming here because of the economic slowdown and workplace immigration raids that have snared scores of unauthorized workers.
"This is the first time I've seen people returning instead of coming," Armenta said.
A study released Tuesday by the Pew Hispanic Center has documented a change in trend: After years of rapid growth, illegal immigration is slowing down in California, with the state's share of the nation's estimated 11.9 million undocumented migrants dropping to 22% from 42% in 1990, the study showed.
The state still has the largest concentration of illegal immigrants in the nation, with 2.7 million -- a figure that has nearly doubled since 1990.
But, in a trend that began with California's recession in the 1990s, more migrants are bypassing the state for other areas of the country. The number of illegal immigrants outside the nation's six traditional "first stop" states of California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey and New York has increased sevenfold, to nearly 5 million in 2008 from 700,000 in 1990, according to Jeffrey S. Passel, the study's coauthor and a Pew Center senior demographer.
The study, based on March 2008 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, comes amid renewed momentum for a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would include a legalization program for undocumented migrants. President Obama is expected to make a speech on immigration reform next month and launch public forums about the issue during the summer. Meanwhile, the nation's leading labor groups have reached a compromise about a guest worker program.
Passel said one of the study's most striking findings was the number of young families among the illegal immigrant population. Nearly half of the households headed by undocumented immigrants have young children, twice the rate of native-born households. And nearly three-fourths of their children were U.S.-born citizens.
The children of undocumented immigrants make up about 10% of California students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
"This is a different picture than we usually see of undocumented immigrants," Passel said in a teleconference. "We usually see the young men, day laborers on the corners."
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the slowdown in illegal immigration was welcome news -- but not for the right reasons.
"It's slowing down because the economy has tanked, not because the state is doing much to stop it," he said. "What you'd like to see is illegal immigration decline because we have rational policies in place that make it clear to people that you're not going to benefit by coming to the U.S. or California illegally."
But people such as Jorge-Mario Cabrera, an El Salvador native and immigration activist, said he was sending both messages to relatives to dissuade them from coming here.
"The message to family members is think twice before coming here," said Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "Not only will you find a dearth of job opportunities, you will also find an environment that is very anti-immigrant, with raids and deportations."
The study, co-written by D'Vera Cohn, a Pew Research Center senior writer, found that three-quarters of illegal immigrants are Latino, mostly from Mexico. On average, they tend to work in low-skilled jobs such as farming and construction, earn markedly less than the median national income and have lower educational levels than U.S.-born residents.
For instance, 47% of illegal immigrant adults ages 25-64 have less than a high school education compared with 8% for U.S.-born residents. The immigrants' 2007 median household income was $36,000, compared with $50,000 for the U.S.-born, and they did not attain markedly higher incomes the longer they lived in the United States, unlike legal immigrants, the study found.