About That Recent Decline of Illegal Immigrants... Part II: Illegal Tide Rising Again?

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on November 11, 2010

So, do the new Pew numbers mean that even with only a small uptick in the American economy, the number of illegal immigrants is beginning to rise again? If this were the case, it would undercut administration claims that it was its tough enforcement policies that were responsible for decline in illegal immigration that Pew had found in an earlier study.

The new Pew study reports that, "Because immigration status is not recorded in the source data, this report is not able to identify immigrants in the labor force by whether or not they are unauthorized" (p.4).

Nonetheless, an executive summary of the study answers this question very directly: "It appears that the economic recovery, young as it is, is attracting immigrant workers back into the U.S." (emphasis added) More specifically, "The growth in the foreign-born population is driven by new arrivals." (p.17, emphasis added)

How do they know this is the case? Because "The population of immigrants already in the U.S. can only decrease, either through emigration or death. One way to estimate the impact of new arrivals is to look at the change in the population of recently arrived immigrants, those who have been in the U.S. since 2000. As shown in Appendix Tables B6 and B7, recently arrived immigrants, Hispanic and non-Hispanic, added 1.5 million to the working-age population from the second quarter of 2009 to the second quarter of 2010. That compared with an increase of 623,000 in the preceding year." (p.17)

So in one year the population of newly arrived immigrants (of legal and or illegal status) was 1.5 million. Yet the DHS Office of Immigration Statistics reports that, "In 2009, a total of 1,130,818 persons became LPRs of the United States. The majority of new LPRs (59 percent) already lived in the United States when they were granted lawful permanent residence." In 2009, the total number of immigrants who received Legal Permanent Residence (i.e., green cards) was 1.1 million – that's 400,000 fewer than the "new arrivals" estimated by the new Pew study. Moreover, of the 1.1 million, 667,766 had their status "adjusted," meaning they were already here and were thus unlikely to be included in Pew's count of "new arrivals."

There are clearly more new immigrants working in the country now than there were, and there are many that are not accounted for by the numbers of LPRs who are classified as "new arrivals" (463,042 in 2009 and 466,558 in 2008).

Either Pew's earlier estimate regarding the decrease in illegal immigrants was wrong. Or, the number of illegal immigrants is on the rise, even in the face of the very small and tenuous recovery of the American economic system. Or both.

Other evidence suggesting that illegal immigration has begun to rise with the uptick, however small, in the American economy is found in where these new immigrants are finding jobs. Pew reports that, "As in the past, the construction sector led the way in providing employment for foreign-born Hispanics – they gained 98,000 construction sector jobs from 2009 to 2010. They gained 98,000 construction jobs from 2009 to 2010." (p.11) Correspondingly, "For native-born Hispanics, the construction sector was the leading source of job losses in the recovery. Their employment in the sector decreased by 133,000 from 2009 to 2010. Other leading sources of lost jobs were transportation and warehousing and wholesale and retail trade. Those two sectors collectively let go of 92,000 native-born Hispanics." (p.11, emphasis added)

The Pew report expresses puzzlement at these figures: "The reasons that only foreign-born workers have gained jobs in the recovery are not entirely clear." (p.3) Among the reasons it lists are that foreign-born workers have greater mobility than native-born workers; that they are more able to move more fluidly across regions, industries, and occupations; are more likely to exit from and enter into employment on a month-to-month basis; the fact that they took a greater unemployment hit earlier and thus their job "recovery" also begins somewhat earlier; and the reassertion of "longer-term demographic trends." The last includes the fact that the foreign-born now account for 15.7 percent of the labor force, up from 9.7 percent in 1995.

All of these reasons are consistent with the probability that the rise in foreign-born employment that Pew is now reporting is fueled in part by an increase in illegal immigration. Certainly, the large increase in the foreign-born labor force from 1995 up until the present can be substantially attributed to the increase in illegal immigration.

It is tempting to say that these data suggest that the economic incentives for illegal immigrants trump enforcement efforts, but that would require adopting the administration's view of its own enforcement efforts. A focus on deporting criminal aliens is a welcome step, but leaving non-criminal aliens alone to continue living and working in the United States unimpeded is not what most Americans think of as "enforcement."

If the administration continues with this focus, and illegal immigration begins to rise again with the eventual economy recovery, we will be right back to the numbers of illegal immigrants that were in the country before the recent decline in those numbers.