The number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. has dropped for the first time in 20 years as substantially fewer undocumented workers from Mexico, Latin America and elsewhere are crossing the border in search of jobs, an independent research group says.
The analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center suggests the nation’s economic downturn and increased border enforcement have reduced the number of illegal immigrants, who make up roughly 4 percent of the U.S. population.
The study released Wednesday estimates that 11.1 million illegal immigrants lived in the U.S. in 2009. That represents a decrease of roughly 1 million, or 8 percent, from a peak of 12 million in 2007, before Arizona intervened with its new enforcement measures.
The study, based on an analysis of 2009 census data, puts the number of illegal immigrants about where it was in 2005.
The 11.1 million is slightly higher than the Homeland Security Department’s own estimate of 10.8 million. The government uses a different census survey that makes some year-to-year comparisons difficult.
Much of the recent decrease comes from a sharp drop-off in illegal immigrants attempting to cross the border into the U.S., particularly those from the Caribbean, Central America and South America. An increase in unauthorized immigrants leaving the U.S., by deportation or for economic reasons, also may have played a factor.
States in the Southeast and Southwest saw some of the biggest declines in the number of illegal immigrants from 2008 to 2009, including Florida, Nevada and Virginia. Arizona saw a decrease, but it was too small to be statistically significant.
It’s hard to figure out how much of the decline to attribute to the bad economy and how much to immigration enforcement, said Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at Pew who co-wrote the analysis.
Other Pew findings:
* The states with the highest percentage of illegal immigrants were California (6.9 percent), Nevada (6.8 percent), Texas (6.5 percent) and Arizona (5.8 percent). The numbers are expected to play an important factor in whether those states lose or gain fewer U.S. House seats than expected after the 2010 census.
* Illegal immigrants make up about 28 percent of the foreign-born population in the U.S., down from 31 percent in 2007.
* The unemployment rate for illegal immigrants in March 2009 was 10.4 percent–higher than that of U.S.-born workers or legal immigrants, who had unemployment of 9.2 percent and 9.1 percent, respectively.