Illegal Immigration's Initial Decrease Halts

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New research from the Pew Hispanic Center shows that the population of illegal immigrants in the U.S. has decreased significantly from its peak in 2007, but has leveled off since last year. Yet, the number of federal prosecutions involving immigration have risen sharply. States like New Mexico and Arizona have also passed executive orders and laws to crack down on illegal immigrants. Francisco Pedraza, assistant professor of political science at Texas A & M University and Gabriel Sanchez, assistant professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, discuss the trends.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we want to go to broader issues in this immigration debate. New research from the Pew Hispanic Center shows that about one out of every four of the foreign-born population in this country is here illegally. The study also suggests that the population of illegal immigrants has decreased from its peak in 2007, but that drop halted last year. And all this as some states are creating their own network of laws and executive orders to deal with this question.

Joining us, Francisco Pedraza - he's an assistant professor of political science at Texas A&M University. And his area of study focuses primarily on political issues important to Latinos in the U.S. Also with us, Gabriel Sanchez, an assistant professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. And he also pays close attention to the politics affecting the Latino community. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Professor FRANCISCO PEDRAZA (Texas A&M University): Thank you, Michel, for having me here today.

Professor GABRIEL SANCHEZ (University of New Mexico): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break in just a minute, but we'll just get this conversation started and we'll all - all three of you will stay with us in our next segment. So Francisco, I'd like to start with you. And I'd like to ask why you think it is that the number of illegal immigrants seems to have declined, but that decline stopped. It's interesting.

Prof. PEDRAZA: Sure. There's a couple of factors that come to mind right away. The big picture here is the economy, of course. And when we start to take a look at some of the figures that the Pew report is indicating about specific states, for example, increasing - we have Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, those are all states that have unemployment levels that are lower than the national level. So it's not surprising that you'd see folks whose primary motivation for entering the United States is economic - moving from one state to another to follow jobs.

MARTIN: And the fact that Mario Perez, whom we just spoke with, that he was -it was a routine traffic stop, if you will - the fact that his immigration status has been scrutinized as a consequence of that, is that - has that become policy across the country?

Prof. PEDRAZA: Well, I'll tell you what, that's one of the most fascinating things that we're observing right now, is that in the absence of an overall federal immigration policy reform, what we've seen is a hodgepodge of partnerships between federal agencies and state and local law enforcement jurisdictions.

And what that's led to is a lot of variation from one state to another, from one locale to another in terms of the enforcement priorities that we see local law enforcement agencies working towards. So in this case, Mr. Perez was pulled over on a routine traffic stop - in other jurisdictions that just wouldn't have been a priority. The priority there is what folks are referring to as level three, or higher priority. These are folks who are brought in for felony charges and that's the focus of these partnerships.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we'll hear more with Francisco Pedraza of Texas A&M University. We'll also talk to Gabriel Sanchez of the University of New Mexico. There in New Mexico, just last week the state's governor, who is Latina, issued an executive order pertaining to illegal immigrants. We'll talk about that. Also with us, Sam Fulwood of the Center for American Progress.

Please stay with us. I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back.

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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

That move by AOL to buy the online news site Huffington Post, we wondered what it might mean to people looking for diverse viewpoints online. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we go back to our conversation about illegal immigration and moves by states to create their own network of laws and executive orders to address the issue. Still with us, Francisco Pedraza, who studies political issues important to Latinos in the U.S. He's a professor of political science at Texas A&M. Also with us, Gabriel Sanchez. He likewise studies Latino politics in the U.S. He's an assistant professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. And still with us, Sam Fulwood of the Center for American Progress.

Professor Sanchez, would you tell - tell us about - before the break, Professor Pedraza was talking about how in the absence of kind of a comprehensive federal solution, states and localities are kind of moving across the country to implement different laws. Arizona's moves last year got a lot of attention, an effort to increase local law enforcement scrutiny of illegal immigrants. What about in New Mexico?

Prof. SANCHEZ: You know, New Mexico has had a lot of activity in this area recently with the election of the new governor, Martinez. And this executive order really specifically looks at this issue of checking immigration status after arrest. And really, the question out here in New Mexico is how this is going to be implemented.

The governor's office has kind of reiterated that it's not going to be used for traffic stops, as the example that we've been talking about kind of exemplifies - only individuals who've been arrested. But a lot of folks are concerned with that. Is it going to have an impact on people not wanting to report crimes? How will that impact witnesses? Right, there's a lot of different spillover issues that really comes down to how this will be implemented, not just the way that the policy is outlined.

MARTIN: Well, how are people receiving her moves? As we've mentioned, she is a Latina. She's the first Latina governor in the United States. And also, New Mexico has the largest percentage of citizens who are of Latino heritage. So how are her moves being received?

Prof. SANCHEZ: You know, that's somewhat the irony. You know, you've got the first Latina governor. You wouldn't expect these conservative policies, I suppose, coming from that individual. But on one hand, you know, at least the limited polling data that we have here in New Mexico suggests that, you know, the Albuquerque Police Department, for example, has a very similar policy that was put in place with the new mayor here.

And when you look at the polling numbers, about 80 percent of people across the state strongly approve of that policy. So I think she felt that she had somewhat of a mandate to push these type of policies. And I think given the fact that she campaigned very, very aggressively on these issues, she feels like, look, the public's with me on this.

And I think given that the economy is really driving more conservative attitudes towards immigrants in general, I think this is just somewhat of the backdrop that's really pushing these across states like New Mexico.

MARTIN: And what about the issue of birthright citizenship? Professor Sanchez, I'll hear from you first and then I'll ask Professor Pedraza if he wants to add something. The question of birthright citizenship. It came up in Arizona earlier this week. Is this something that is of interest in state legislatures that you are both following? Professor Sanchez?

Prof. SANCHEZ: Yeah. I think this is going to be the new debate. This is going to be the new battleground on the immigration issue. You saw that in Arizona. You know, that policy there in the state legislature has stalled. But I believe other states are looking to Arizona to see what's happening. Here in New Mexico, not quite at the level of pushing a bill, but I know there's a handful of state legislators that are very supportive of that move and are looking closely to what happens in Arizona to see if it'll be somewhat of a test case for trying to implement something like that here, and I suppose other states are doing similar things, paying attention, seeing if there's the context to be able to get the votes to push this.

MARTIN: Professor Pedraza, do you want to add something to that?

Prof. PEDRAZA: Yeah. And the only other thing I would add is that the sources of this variation are really coming from the differences in political pressures that we see at the local level. So local police departments, as well as local representatives and state legislatures, they're simply responding to some of the demands they perceive from constituents. And that certainly varies from state to state.

Prof. SANCHEZ: And one quick...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

Prof. SANCHEZ: One quick addition, if I can, is just to understand that the strategy behind a lot of this, they realize that they can't push this constitutionally. So it's really just trying to push the Supreme Court to consider this issue. They realize they're not going to be able to overcome the legal battles, so they're really hoping to bring this to the national stage with the Supreme Court.

MARTIN: How do you interpret - and Professor Pedraza, perhaps you want to take this question - how do you, how do you analyze the fact that federal authorities removed a record number of immigrants from the country last year? That's nearly 400,000. I think the actual number was something like 393,000. Even as this is a Democratic administration, which had promised what some call a more humane approach to immigration issues even in the absence of an overall strategy. How do you interpret that?

Prof. PEDRAZA: That's a great question. You know, the current immigration system is often described as being broken. And Michel, it's quite the opposite. The enforcement side of operations are actually working remarkably well. So early October, just before the midterm elections in 2010, Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Department of Homeland Security, announced record-breaking immigrant deportation figures for fiscal 2010.

Now, funding for the programs that are partnering federal agencies with local law enforcement has actually increased, from under 10 million in 2006 to nearly 70 million in 2010. And Secretary Napolitano is crediting these programs for these record increases in deportations.

On the other hand, demands of restrictionists, while they're being met, what we see is that large-scale proposals to innovate current immigration policy at the federal level, including those that would include a provision to a pathway to status adjustment, those are basically off the table. They're not getting a lot of traction.

And even smaller-scale efforts, you mentioned earlier with the story of Mr. Perez, that the Dream Act, even the advocates of Dream Acts have been continuously stymied.

MARTIN: OK. I'm going to ask - I'm going to give Sam Fulwood the final thought on that. You're here in Washington, D.C. Do you agree that the Dream Act, which would offer a pathway to citizenship for a very select group of young people brought here, like Mr. Perez, as young children, do you think that that's stalled?

Mr. SAM FULWOOD (Center for American Progress): Oh, I think it's - I think it's dead in the water for two years. I don't think until after the presidential elections we can even consider that happening. I mean, you raised a really interesting point just a second ago about the deportations. And I think that we saw the increase in deportations coming from this administration, which heretofore had been somewhat favorable.

I think that was a failed strategy in order to win support from the conservative side for being able to push through - cleave off some people to say, look, we will enforce the law, but we were going to push for comprehensive immigration reform - and they didn't get it. I think it failed.

MARTIN: And final - I wanted to ask you the question I asked Mario Perez in the minute we have left. What about those who say you break the rules, there's a consequence, that's it? Why are we even having this debate?

Mr. FULWOOD: I'm glad I had a chance to say that. I don't want to speak for Mr. Perez, but I think that there is a question of basic fairness that comes into play about these young people coming into the country as babies, who have lived exemplary lives in this country. Now, I'm not talking about anyone who's criminal or anything like that. But someone like Mr. Perez, it could be an asset to the country. And it is a question of fairness, as he pointed.

It was through no act of his own that he was brought here and then all of a sudden at 20-some years old to say he has to go because of some legalism is just basically un-American.

MARTIN: Sam Fulwood is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He wrote about Mario Perez's case. He's a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, which Mario Perez is also a member of. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. We also heard from Francisco Pedraza. He's a professor of political science at Texas A&M. He was with us from member station KAMU in College Station, Texas.

And Gabriel Sanchez, assistant professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. He was with us from member station KUNM in Albuquerque. Thank you both so much for joining us. Thank you all.

Mr. FULWOOD: Thank you, Michel.

Prof. SANCHEZ: Thank you.

Prof. PEDRAZA: Thank you.

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