Fewer Immigrants Are Entering the U.S. Illegally

Jerry Markon, Washington Post, May 27, 2015

Monica Camacho-Perez came to the United States from Mexico as a child, crossing into Arizona with her mother in the same spot where her father made the trip before them. “Nobody stopped us,’’ Camacho-Perez, now 20, said of her 2002 journey.

Three years ago, her uncle tried to cross the border and join the family in Baltimore, where they remain illegal immigrants. He was stopped three times by the U.S. Border Patrol and jailed for 50 days.

“He doesn’t want to try anymore,” said Camacho-Perez. “Now, it’s really hard.”

As the Department of Homeland Security continues to pour money into border security, evidence is emerging that illegal immigration flows have fallen to their lowest level in at least two decades. The nation’s population of illegal immigrants, which more than tripled, to 12.2 million, between 1990 and 2007, has dropped by about 1 million, according to demographers at the Pew Research Center.

A key–but largely overlooked–sign of these ebbing flows is the changing makeup of the undocumented population. Until recent years, illegal immigrants tended to be young men streaming across the Southern border in pursuit of work. But demographic data show that the typical illegal immigrant now is much more likely someone who is 35 or older and has lived in the United States for a decade or more.

Homeland security officials in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations–who have more than doubled the Border Patrol’s size and spent billions on drones, sensors and other technology at the border–say enhanced security is driving the new trends.

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What’s increasingly clear is that the shifting fortunes of the U.S. economy account for less of the ebb and flow of illegal immigration. Even as the economy bounces back from recession, illegal immigration flows, especially from Mexico, have kept declining, ­according to researchers and government data. Since the 1990s, the opposite was true: The better the economy, the more people tried to come.

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Some researchers say factors other than security are playing a role and might even account for much of the reduced flow of illegal immigrants. These researchers point, for instance, to changes in Latin America that could be pushing fewer people to seek a better life in the United States.

At odds with the government’s claims of success, a series of academic studies in recent years have found little linkage between border security and illegal migration.

Douglas S. Massey, a Princeton University sociologist, said the falling numbers of immigrants have “nothing to do with border enforcement.” Massey, who helps run a project that has interviewed thousands of illegal Mexican migrants over the past three decades, attributed the trend to demographic changes in Mexico, such as women having fewer children.

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