ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
For several years - and certainly since the U.S. economy took a nosedive - the number of immigrants coming into the U.S. illegally has been dropping -dramatically. Now comes evidence from the Pew Hispanic Center that more are also leaving the country.
As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, the number of unauthorized immigrants now in the U.S. has dropped 8 percent since 2007.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: To realize how big the change is, consider this: During the first half of this decade, an estimated 850,000 people came to the U.S. illegally every year. The Pew Hispanic Center says as of last year, that's believed to be down to 300,000 - and still dropping.
What's more, Pew demographer Jeff Passel says the new study shows immigrants here are also leaving. Between 2007 and 2009, the biggest decline was in the Southeast.
Dr. JEFF PASSEL (Senior Demographer, Pew Hispanic Center): Our estimates show significant drops in Florida and Virginia. But basically, the whole South Atlantic Coast, from Delaware down to Florida, we show significant decreases in that area.
LUDDEN: The Mountain West also saw an outflow, especially Nevada. Passel says those leaving are mainly from the Caribbean and Central and South America, but not Mexico. Clearly, the terrible economy is a big part of why immigrants are packing up to go. In fact, Pew finds the unemployment rate for unauthorized, foreign workers has risen to nearly 10.5 percent. That's a reversal.
Dr. PASSEL: In the middle of the decade, unauthorized immigrants actually had lower unemployment rates than U.S. natives or legal immigrants.
LUDDEN: But people on both sides of the immigration debate say the economy isn't the whole picture. They point to stepped-up enforcement.
Ms. CHERYL LITTLE (Executive Director, Florida Immigration Advocacy Center): We're seeing widespread sweeps by federal and local law-enforcement officials; they stretch across our state.
LUDDEN: Cheryl Little heads the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. Pew found that state's unauthorized population down by a whopping one-third.
Ms. LITTLE: When we visit the detention centers, they're often filled with immigrants who were stopped by local police for routine traffic violation and then turned over to ICE.
LUDDEN: That's federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is now deporting some 400,000 immigrants a year, double the number just a few years back. There's also been evidence in recent years that some immigrants, fearful of arrest, are deciding to leave the U.S. on their own.
Of course, counting unauthorized immigrants is hard. No one knows an exact number. But the Pew estimates are widely regarded as trustworthy - they're based on detailed analysis of census figures. Nationwide, the Pew report says the number of illegal immigrants is now down to just over 11 million. Still, it notes, that's a third more than were in the U.S. a decade ago.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.