The number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. may be increasing after dropping off for several years, a new study shows, offering the latest sign the economy is slowly improving.
“The sharp decline in the U.S. population of unauthorized immigrants that accompanied the 2007-2009 recession has bottomed out, and the number may be rising again,” the Washington-based Pew Research Center said in the study released today.
The analysis, which comes as legislation to revise immigration policy is stalled in Congress, underscores the central role that economic conditions play in the flow of immigrants to the U.S.
“When the U.S. economy has been strong, we’ve seen large numbers of unauthorized immigrants coming, and when the economy weakens there tend to be decreases,” Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at the center and one of the report’s authors, told reporters on a conference call.
Using government data for its analysis, Pew estimates there were 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. as of March 2012, with 60 percent in six states: California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas.
Mexicans represent 52 percent of the undocumented immigrants, the study said. In 2012, they totaled an estimated 6.1 million, down about 1 million from 2007.
“The leveling off of the unauthorized population and the unauthorized Mexican population suggests that the people who wanted to leave, may already have left,” Passel said.
The study found that the number of undocumented immigrants peaked at 12.2 million in 2007, the final year before the recession was in full swing, and fell as low as 11.3 million in 2009, breaking an upward trend that had held for decades.
Knowing precisely whether the numbers are on the rise again is difficult because the survey data used has margins of error, Passel said.
Among the top states for undocumented immigrants, only Texas kept adding during each of the years from 2007 to 2011, according to the study. The five other states all experienced peak numbers in 2007, followed by declines the next year or two.
The decreases happened as the U.S. economy suffered through its worst recession since the Great Depression, sending the unemployment rate to a 26-year high of 10 percent in October 2009. The rate was 7.3 percent last month after the economy grew 2.5 percent in the quarter that ended in June.
Prospects for passing immigration-law changes have languished in Congress amid partisan battles over spending and health care. The House Republican majority has rejected a comprehensive plan passed June 27 by the Democratic-controlled Senate. The chances for enacting a law by year’s end dimmed after House leaders said they would consider a series of bills instead of one comprehensive measure.