What the Drop in Illegal Residency Means for Immigration Reform

The annual inflow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. has dropped by two-thirds in the past ten years, according to a new study from the Pew Hispanic Center.* This number echoes similar findings from the Department of Homeland Security and the Center for Immigration Studies and is attributable to a combination of lousy economic circumstances and beefed up immigration enforcement. If and when the economy begins to recover, illegal immigration will likely creep back up.

So, what does this mean from a policy perspective? It depends on whom you talk to.

According to Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy research for the conservative-leaning Center for Immigration Studies, it destroys the case for amnesty. "The most important thing to take away from this trend, I think, is that it shows us that we can in fact reduce the size of the illegal population without enacting amnesty," Vaughan says. "Illegal immigration is not a force of nature. It's a result of people making choices based on incentives they perceive. When you change that mix, you can bring about a change in behavior."

Vaughan cites specific declines in the number of illegal immigrants living in Nevada, Florida, and Virginia to show that "in some parts of the country where there has been more robust enforcement, those places have seen even bigger declines than others." Vaughan acknowledges speculation that these states' declines may be linked to the implosion of the construction industry, but brings up another factor: "I would note that both Nevada and Florida have passed laws that have resulted in state agencies assisting Immigration and Customs Enforcement."

She also points to what she says was a small exodus of illegal immigrants from states that tightened their driver's license requirements. "It's a push and pull," she says.

But Mary Giovagnoli, director of the more liberal Immigration Policy Institute, sees the Pew study as extra motivation to pass comprehensive immigration reform, including a legalization program for those already in the country. "I think it overall provides us with a healthy reality check on the fact that despite the claims that the country's being overrun and that all of these problems are the result of illegal immigrants, the amount of illegal immigration is, in proportion to the overall population and even in terms of overall numbers, declining," she says. "We need to seize upon that and build a smart immigration overhaul where now, with these statistics in play, we can figure out how to get it right."

The number of illegal immigrants has historically vacillated alongside the country's economic fortunes, Giovagnoli points out. "One of the overall best ways to ensure that we don't have continued loops of illegal immigration is to ensure that we have a combination of improvements to our permanent legal system and to our guest worker programs," she says. "We know that enforcement alone can't handle the situation."

Under Obama, deportations of illegal immigrants have increased. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement deported 20,000 more illegal immigrants in 2009 than in 2008, though it has focused these deportations on those with criminal records. Congress recently passed a bill allocating $600 million for increased border security, and a June report by a former assistant secretary for border and transportation security policy found that immigration enforcement has significantly increased over the past five years.

As a new and likely more Republican Congress tackles immigration legislation, it will be interesting to watch how lawmakers balance the small steps forward -- fewer illegal immigrants, better enforcement -- with the centrality of the issue in the national psyche, as exemplified by the public support for Arizona's stringent new immigration law. Will immigration reform rise to the top of the congressional docket, or will it get pushed aside to make room for other pressing priorities?

Despite the fervor surrounding SB 1070, the issue of illegal immigration is fading, statistically. It's another question as to whether the statistics will give Congress another reason to avoid a politically sensitive issue.

*This article previously stated that the Pew study found that the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. had dropped by two-thirds. Instead, the study found that the number of illegal immigrants entering the country each year has dropped by two-thirds, and the number of illegal immigrants in the country has dropped by 8 percent since 2007.