Amid Sluggish Economy, Illegal Immigration Fell

Illegal immigration has changed since the raucous debates of 2007. Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, says that the bad economy, followed by stepped up border security and deportation, has had a huge impact on the decline of illegal immigration into the United States.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

We wondered how much has changed since the debates of 2006 and 2007, not in the politics of immigration, but in the illegal immigration population in the country and the economy as immigrants experience it. And joining me is Demetrios Papademetriou, who is president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank. Welcome to the program.

Dr. DEMETRIOS PAPADEMETRIOU (President, Migration Policy Institute): It's my pleasure.

SIEGEL: And first, the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. has reported to have declined by how much and how do we know that?

Dr. PAPADEMETRIOU: Well, you know, it has declined by several hundred thousand people. The estimates vary. This is a population that's very difficult to count. So, what we use is an awful lot of mathematics in that. So, about two years ago we probably had something close to 12 million. The Department of Homeland Security a few months ago said that in January of 2009 the number goes down to 10.8 million. We are experiencing a decline and, you know, this is already 2010 and the number is probably going to be smaller than that.

SIEGEL: And that was a number that had been rising annually.

Dr. PAPADEMETRIOU: It had been rising by three, four or 500,000, yes, for the past decade plus.

SIEGEL: Do we know if the decline is more because of the recession and the difficulty of finding a job in the U.S. or is it more because of increased border security keeping people out who would want to come?

Dr. PAPADEMETRIOU: Well, it is both, plus a third major factor. So, the most important part of the decline is due to the fact that there are no jobs in the United States. Back in 2007, the first jobs to disappear were in the construction industry. And we saw very quickly there was a dramatic shift in the numbers of people who were coming in. The second most important variable is the effort at the borders and the numbers of apprehensions at the borders have dropped dramatically in the past several years.

SIEGEL: When you say dramatically, what do you mean?

Dr. PAPADEMETRIOU: By half, 1.1 million in 2006, probably something in the neighborhood of 500,000 for the year that ended last October. If that's the number, and we have pretty good guess that that's going to be the number, that would be the smallest number of apprehensions in 25 years.

SIEGEL: Which is telling us that far fewer people are trying to cross? It could be saying that there are more holes in the border and more people are getting through.

Dr. PAPADEMETRIOU: You're exactly right. But it is far fewer people are trying to cross because of the economy. And the third factor is we are removing many more people than we ever did before. Removals five years ago, three, four years ago in 2005 were just about 200,000 or so - roughly the same level as it was about 10 years ago. Since then the number has gone up to over 400,000. And from those people who get removed, as you would imagine, Mexicans and Central Americans are the largest part of the total, maybe 80 to 85 percent.

SIEGEL: Yeah, has the falloff in immigration changed at all the share of illegal immigrants in the U.S. who come from Mexico or Central America?

Dr. PAPADEMETRIOU: Not very much. You know, over the past decade or so, the consensus of the people who work in this field was that roughly about 60 to 66 percent, around two-third of the total would be from Mexico. Another 10, 12, 14 percent would be from the rest of Central America, the rest from the rest of the world. But that is only about 60 to 65 percent of the total illegally resident population. The other 35 to 40 percent is made up of people who came to the country legally and then they violated the terms of their visa.

SIEGEL: Overstayed their visa in some way...

Dr. PAPADEMETRIOU: Overstayed their visa.

SIEGEL: I suppose one could look at all of these numbers and say, well, if there's going to be a sluggish economy for another ten years, sometime by the year 2020, the problem of illegal immigration will solve itself.

Dr. PAPADEMETRIOU: I don't think so. I think that, you know, essentially, you know, we're going to continue to have illegal immigration, but probably, you know, at smaller numbers. And it all depends on what the government does. If the government continues to try to remove people at the rates that it has been doing, yes indeed, you know, we're going to have much smaller numbers in the next decade.

SIEGEL: Demetrios Papademetriou, thank you very much for talking with us.

Dr. PAPADEMETRIOU: It has been my pleasure.

SIEGEL: Dr. Papademetriou is the president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington D.C.

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