Illegal immigration has been in a "sharp decline" over the past two years, the Pew Hispanic Center said in a report released Wednesday, and the Obama administration immediately touted the data as proof that it has made progress on securing the nation's borders.
The first significant reduction in illegal immigration in two decades coincides with a slowing economy and stepped-up enforcement under President George W. Bush and the early months of Mr. Obama's administration, though the report's authors said there is no way to tell from the numbers whether the economy or the enforcement was the bigger factor.
"At this point, both of those broad factors seem to be working in the same direction," said Jeffrey Passel, the Pew Center's senior demographer.
Mr. Obama's effort to fulfill a campaign promise to overhaul the nation's immigration laws has stalled on Capitol Hill, and the administration is in a legal battle with Arizona over the state's tough new immigration-enforcement statute.
The change tracked in the Pew survey is substantial. About 300,000 people migrated to the U.S. illegally in the past two years, down nearly two-thirds from the rate in the first half of the decade. The overall population of illegal immigrants dropped from an estimated 12 million in 2007 to 11.1 million as of March 2009, the report said.
The population of illegal immigrants clearly shrank in Florida, Nevada and Virginia, and may have fallen slightly in other states, the report said.
The report covered illegal immigration numbers only through March 2009, or the first two months of the Obama administration, but the Homeland Security Department said it shows that stepped-up enforcement along the border and in the interior can be effective.
"This administration's unprecedented commitment of manpower, technology and infrastructure to the southwest border has been a major factor in this dramatic drop in illegal crossings," said Matt Chandler, a Homeland Security spokesman. "We are cracking down on employers who hire illegal labor, seizures of illicit goods are up across the board, criminal-alien removals are at an all-time high, the Border Patrol is better staffed than at any time in its 85-year history, and the southwest border is more secure than ever before."
Early last month, Mr. Obama signed into law a bill to fund more U.S. Border Patrol agents, and he has authorized up to 1,200 National Guard troops to be deployed to the border to help combat drug cartels, though they are not supposed to be involved in direct enforcement of immigration laws.
But Mr. Obama also has asked Congress to pass a bill legalizing most illegal immigrants and granting a path to citizenship. He argues that illegal immigrants already in the U.S. are unlikely to leave and their status can't be left in limbo.
Still, the president has to toe a tricky line. Americans aren't convinced that the borders are secure enough, but immigrant rights activists, who tended to support Mr. Obama in the 2008 election, say the emphasis on enforcement is too heavy and have called for the president to halt deportations and focus on legalization.
Those who favor a crackdown on illegal immigration say the new numbers show that legalization isn't the only answer.
"This kind of drop does tend to undermine an argument for legalization, because one argument for legalization is these people are here to stay, nothing can bring these numbers down. Well, no, these numbers are down by 1 million-plus," said Steven A. Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies.
Mr. Camarota said his own research looking at populations month to month found that illegal immigration started dropping in the last half of 2007, or about the same time that the Bush administration enhanced enforcement in the wake of Congress' last failure to pass an immigration reform bill. The recession, though, didn't begin until six months later - suggesting that at least at the beginning, enforcement did make a dent in the population.
"The thing that seems to have caused the initial decline is, it coincides exactly with the failure of the 2007 amnesty," Mr. Camarota said.
Pew's demographers used U.S. census data from the annual Current Population Survey for their analysis.
They found that the number of illegal immigrants from Mexico remained level over the past few years at about 7 million, but the population coming from the rest of Latin America has fallen by 22 percent.
The report said about 1.1 million illegal-immigrant children are now in the country and an additional 4 million children born in the U.S. have at least one parent who is an illegal immigrant. That number has nearly doubled since 2000.
Those children are citizens by right of being born in the U.S., though some top Republicans have suggested that the policy should be changed.
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