A new report that the nation's illegal immigrant population has declined by nearly 1 million has sharpened the debate over whether to legalize those remaining or allow their numbers to shrink through attrition.
The number of illegal immigrants living in the United States dropped to 10.8 million in 2009 from 11.6 million in 2008, marking the second consecutive year of decline and the sharpest decrease in at least three decades, according to a report this week by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
California's illegal immigrant population, still the largest in the nation, declined by 250,000 to 2.6 million. The state now accounts for just one-quarter of the nation's total illegal migrant population, compared with 30% in 2000.
"This represents a sharp break from the past, when pretty much the illegal population has continually grown," said Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., research group that favors immigration restrictions. "It shows illegal immigration is not inexorable."
Homeland Security department spokesman Matthew Chandler attributed the decline both to the weak economy and what he called the deployment of "unprecedented resources" in stopping illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border and throughout the country.
Immigration control advocates pounced on the report as evidence that illegal immigration can be reduced by restricting job opportunities and that legalization is not necessary to solve the problem. Giving a pathway to citizenship to qualified illegal immigrants has long been the most controversial element in congressional proposals for comprehensive immigration reform.
"Whether jobs dry up because the government is doing enforcement or because of the recession, illegal aliens react in a rational manner: They either will not come or they'll go home," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "It certainly shows that illegal immigration is a controllable phenomenon."
Immigrant advocates, however, argue that millions of illegal migrants have been here for years, with settled lives they will not easily disrupt to return home.
"Millions of people here are good citizens and workers who pay taxes and own homes," said Father Richard Estrada of Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Los Angeles, a self-declared sanctuary for illegal immigrants. "The reality is that they are not going back."
The report estimated the size of the illegal immigrant population by comparing the total foreign-born population in the United States to the legal resident population and subtracting the difference. The report cautioned that changes made to the census survey could have affected the results.
Researchers believe the drop was caused by a combination of fewer illegal immigrants entering the country and more leaving. Mexican government census data, for instance, showed that 226,000 fewer people left that country in the year ending August 2008 than the previous year.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government has stepped up removal of illegal immigrants, to 387,790 in fiscal 2009 from 291,060 in 2007.
But Estrada said that undocumented immigrants still arrive daily at his church, seeking help.
Last week, he said, a couple came with candles, a baby Jesus doll -- and visibly swollen feet after walking days through the desert as they furtively crossed the southern border of the U.S. The woman asked for a priestly blessing after she tearfully described leaving her children behind in Mexico to find work here, Estrada said.
"She knew about the recession here, but there are no jobs over there, so they thought they would try here," Estrada said. "There are a lot of false hopes out there."
The Chinese illegal immigrant population showed the steepest decline, plummeting by nearly half to 120,000 in 2009 from 220,000 the previous year, the report showed. Mexicans, who account for 62% of the undocumented population, declined by 380,000 to 6.65 million. Illegal immigrants from South Korea, the Philippines and El Salvador declined while those from Guatemala, Honduras and India increased.
Among states, illegal immigrants increased in Georgia but declined in other major areas. Several states experienced a double-digit decline, led by Arizona's 17.8%, followed by Florida, New York and New Jersey.