Number Of Immigrants Living In U.S. Drops

According to a recent report from the Department of Homeland Security the number of illegal immigrants fell to 10.8 million in 2009 from 11.6 million in 2008. What does this mean for immigration policy in the U-S, and what circumstances are making that number go down? Host Michel Martin talks about the meaning of the report with Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies and Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of America's Voice, a group that advocates an immigration policy that allows for a path to legalization for many illegal immigrants.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR news.

Coming up, how one small town Mississippi mayor is trying to get his town fit -that conversation in a few minutes. But first, we want to address what has been one of this country's most polarizing political issues in recent years: illegal immigration. As we know, political leaders have been arguing for years about whether and how to address the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. By definition, a real number is hard to come by, but it has long been estimated that 12 million is about right.

Well, it turns out, according to a recent report from the Department of Homeland Security, that the number of illegal or undocumented immigrants in this country is dropping. A new report from the department suggests that the number of illegal immigrants fell from 11.6 million in 2008 to 10.8 million in 2009. So, what might that mean for America's immigration policy and debate?

Joining us to talk more about that is Steven Camarota. He's the director of research for the Center of Immigration Studies. That's a group that advocates stricter enforcement of immigration laws. Also joining us is Frank Sharry. He's the founder and executive director of America's Voice. That group advocates an immigration policy that allows for a path to legalization for many illegal immigrants, and he's here with us in our studio. I welcome you both. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. STEVEN CAMAROTA (Director of Research, Center of Immigration Studies): Thanks for having me.

Mr. FRANK SHARRY (Founder, Executive Director, America's Voice): Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask you both first of all if you were surprised by these numbers. And Frank, I'll start with you.

Mr. SHARRY: Not terribly. I mean, I think the severe recession has led to a drop in the number of people coming and an uptick in the number of people who've decided to go home. Over the past 10 years, there's been a steady increase in the population of those here illegally, and there's been two dips: one during the recession following 9/11, and one following the housing bubble burst in 2007.

MARTIN: Steve, what about you? What do you think?

Dr. CAMAROTA: Well, in July of last year, we put out our estimates for the size of the illegal population as of the beginning of 2009, and it was 10.8 million. So in that sense, no, we weren't surprised. It was what we expected. We found that fewer people are coming and more are going home.

MARTIN: So what do you think has caused this? Frank's offered a theory. What do you think, Steve?

Dr. CAMAROTA: Well, if you look at the same data on a monthly basis, what you find is that the drop-off did begin before the current recession. It begins in the middle of 2007, which suggests that the stepped-up enforcement at the end of the Bush administration probably played a role in sort of getting the ball rolling and causing more people to go home and fewer to come. However, it seems very likely that the predominant role right now is being played by the recession.

MARTIN: Frank, what about you? Do you think that stepped-up enforcement, you know, real or for show, played a role?

Mr. SHARRY: Well, I think there has been a stepped-up enforcement, but I think it's had a very minor impact on the population of those here illegally. I mean, look. People come for work. What happened in 2007 is that the housing bubble burst and construction jobs disappeared, and many undocumented workers worked in construction. For those who have families and are settled here, which is the majority, they, you know, they hunkered down and are still here. But for more recently arrived folks, you know, they tried the street corner for a while. It was too crowded. They said, you know what? I'd rather be poor back home than here, and some of those folks left.

MARTIN: Well, now that we've talked about the what and we've talked about the why, I think it would be helpful to talk about what we think this might mean. One of the reasons that this is interesting is that one of the essential arguments for the pro-legalization or path to legalization side has been that 12 million people, or thereabouts, are here. They're not going to self-deport. And so therefore, the intelligent thing to do is figure out a way that people can come out from the shadow.

So, Frank, does this challenge your thinking on this, about the fundamental concept and need for a path to legalization?

Mr. SHARRY: Not at all. I mean, look, the DHS report that we're talking about also said that two-thirds of the 10.8 million people here arrived before 2000. That means that most are here for 10 years or more. Most are here, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, in families. These people are rooted here. When people say they should go home, they are home. So the idea that, you know, stepped-up enforcement alone is somehow going to drive 11 million people out of the country, I don't think it's practical, nor do I think is particularly humane.

MARTIN: Or the recession.

Mr. SHARRY: Look, I don't think we're going to have a severe recession for the next 20 years. Let's hope not. I think Americans have suffered enough already. As we come out of this recession, the question is: Do we have an immigration system that will make immigration legal, or are we going to continue to abide by millions of people, whether it's eight million as it was at the beginning of the decade, or 11 million at the end of the decade. Is that okay with us? I don't think so. We have a choice.

Are we going to try to force them out of the country, or are we going to bring them into the system so they can work their way towards citizenship and become taxpayers and good citizens? We prefer that option. We think it's part of a way to stop illegal immigration.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about a new report from the Department of Homeland Security that suggests that the number of illegal or undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has, in fact, dropped. Our guests are Frank Sharry of America's Voice. That's a group that advocates a path to legalization for those who are currently undocumented or illegal. And Steven Camarota of the Center of Immigration Studies - that's a group that generally promotes stricter enforcement of immigration laws, or stricter laws altogether. Steven, your take on that?

Dr. CAMAROTA: Illegal immigration is not something that just goes up and up and up. It's not inexorable. In the last two years, the number's fallen by a million. Some estimates actually indicate that it's even bigger than that. And so what that suggests is what happens in the United States can begin to reverse these flows. Now, obviously, it took us 20 years of neglect to get in the situation where we tolerate nearly 11 million illegal still in the country.

But what I think we have to do is step back from the same kind of tired old arguments that there's nothing we can do about it. We have to legalize everyone. Look, in 1986, we legalized nearly three million illegal immigrants, and legal immigration is double what it was then. So the argument is what we need to do is, well, we'll just legalize everyone. We promise to enforce the law, and we'll increase legal immigration. We've heard this again and again. It came up in the '90s.

I think what we need is some new thinking on this question. And that new thinking is to actually get serious about enforcing the law. People respond to incentives. Now, can we make every illegal go home? No. And at some point, we should consider an amnesty for some share of illegals who are left who've down a lot of roots. But the only way that makes sense is if you've shown that you're serious about the rule of law for a number of years, then you have your amnesty to tie up lose ends, to kind of get a fresh start.

But in - what experience tells us is that if we have another amnesty like we did in the past, say, well, we'll increase immigration, legal immigration and somehow that'll solve it. What we know is what'll happen is the amnesty will go through, enforcement will get put on the backburner again, and because of the amnesty, more people will come with the hope that hey, now they can get in line for what inevitably will be the next series of amnesties.

MARTIN: Well, you've kind of given us a lot there to think about, and I'm trying to figure out how to unpack that. I guess I'm asking do you draw any policy conclusion from this drop in the number of people who are present in the country?

Dr. CAMAROTA: The people most likely to go, at least initially, are those with, you know, who may not have children or don't have a home and so forth. So I think that it's certainly right that the people most likely to leave are the most recent arrivals. But again, it does tell us this is a fundamental break with the past. We've been trying to study this issue since 1980, people have been estimating the illegal population.

As far as we can tell, with limited data, this is the first time we've ever seen a drop by a million. And that's important. It tells us again that it's not inexorable, that you can reverse that flow. You can get many fewer people to come, and significantly more people to go home. Now if we were to vigorously enforce our laws, I think we could encourage that process and begin to undo the mess we're in, and rather than, you know, try to repeat the mistakes of the past and have another amnesty.

MARTIN: Okay. The only reason I'm puzzled by that, Steven, is that I think you've just said that the major factor here is the economy. It's not enforcement.

Dr. CAMAROTA: Yeah. But the key point is jobs. Everybody who's talked about the issue of encouraging illegals to go home and reducing the number coming in has always focused on the issue of, look, if we cut them off from the jobs, the job market, the other things like social services and bank accounts, they're more tangential - in-state college, tuition, yes, those things matter, but only at the margins. The main thing is to reduce their access to jobs.

Now whether that's being done by the economy or if we actually enforce law -and we have ways of doing that. We've chosen not to. We let, say, a quarter of a million people who are here illegally, according to congressional testimony, work on security numbers of all zeros, and things like that.

MARTIN: Okay.

Dr. CAMAROTA: So, we've made a conscious effort not to enforce our law at the workplace.

MARTIN: Okay, I think I understand. Frank, do you want to respond to that?

Mr. SHARRY: I do. I mean, I think, with all due respect, what Steven is recommending is a policy of harsh, ramped-up enforcement, ongoing recession, and maybe millions of people will leave the country. And I think that that's one of those things that emanates from Washington where people in the heartland say: You've got to be kidding me. Everyone agrees we have to do more at the border. We've done a lot, but that's not the only thing we have to do. We do have to cut off the magnet that draws people here, which is jobs.

And we need to do that with an employment verification system that works. The question is: What do you do with the 10, 11, 12 - whatever - 10.8 million people here? Now, you can say let's hope they go home or let's try to drive millions of them out. Or you can say: Let's require them to step forward. Let's make sure that they pass a background check, they study English, they pay their taxes, and they get to the back of the citizenship line as part of an effort.

Look, the recession is actually - and the downturn is in the numbers. It's actually an opportunity to get our system right. Let's deal with the people here. Let's get our employment verification system in place, and the goal is to eliminate illegal immigration going forward.

MARTIN: That was going to be my final question to each of you. So, Frank I gave you the first word. Steven, I'll give you the last word. So, Frank, you first. Do you feel that this decline will have an effect on the debate and on the prospects for achieving some kind of immigration policy, or changing immigration policy? Frank, to you first.

Mr. SHARRY: I don't think it'll have a big impact. Honestly, this has become such a polarized and politicized debate. We're hoping so much that there's a bipartisan breakthrough this year in which Congress says: You know what? We've screamed about this issue for too long. Leadership is not about scoring points. It's about solving problems. Let's sit down. I hope that once the dust settles in today's political environment, that sensible people from both parties say this is the time to do it. I have my doubts, but I'm a hopeful person.

MARTIN: Okay. Steve, final thought from you. Do you think that this decline will have an impact on the debate? And if so, how?

Dr. CAMAROTA: I think that I agree with Frank that most people are going to want what they want, and they may not look at the numbers. In general, though, most people will say: Well if they're going home on their own, why would we want to reward lawbreaking with another amnesty? So if it has any effect, it'll be to sort of undercut whatever limited enthusiastic - you know, enthusiasm there was on Capitol Hill for an amnesty that, you know, hey, if they're going home, let's see if we can encourage that process. But this year, it seems very unlikely that the issue's going to come up at all. Certainly, the president doesn't seem to want to bring it up.

MARTIN: Steven Camarota is the Director of research for the Center of Immigration Studies. That's a group that generally supports more aggressive enforcement of immigration laws. He joined us from his home office in the Washington, D.C. area. Frank Sharry is the founder and Executive Director of America's Voice. That's a group that advocates allowing a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants. He was here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Gentlemen, I thank you both for speaking to us.

Dr. CAMAROTA: Thanks for having me.

Mr. SHARRY: Thank you.

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