Arizona's illegal population down 20 percent since 2007

Posted: Tuesday, February 1, 2011 10:18 am | Updated: 3:30 pm, Tue Feb 1, 2011.

By Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services East Valley Tribune


After a sharp drop in two prior years, the illegal immigrant population in Arizona appears to be leveling off.

New figures Tuesday from the Pew Hispanic Center estimate the number of Arizonans who were in this country illegally last year at about 400,000. That compares to 500,000 just two years earlier.

But Jeffrey Passel, the senior demographer for the organization, said those 2010 figures are virtually unchanged from 2009.

Pew Hispanic reported similar results on a nationwide basis, with no real change between 2009 and 2010 and the number of illegal immigrants leveling off at about 11.2 million. But the drop nationwide since 2007 is in the 7 percent range, versus that estimated 20 percent decline in Arizona.

That sharp decrease coincides with Arizona implementing new laws making it illegal for employers to knowingly hire undocumented workers. Companies found guilty can have their licenses to do business suspended or even revoked.

But Passel said he can't say whether that law - or other specific Arizona statutes - had an effect on the Arizona figures. He said the study only looked at the numbers, using government data and surveys about the total number of foreign-born residents and comparing that with data on people who are in this country legally.

That, however, did not stop Passel from suggesting that, on a larger scale, the twin factors of the U.S. economy and stricter enforcement of laws against illegal immigration appear to be taking their toll.

He said there is clear evidence in particular that fewer Mexicans are crossing into the United States, with immigration from that country running anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of the peak at the beginning of the last decade. That evidence, Passel said, comes not only from figures gathered by the Mexican government about out-migration but also the sharp drop in the number of people apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol.

"People in Mexico look at the U.S. as a potential source of employment," he said. "They see that the opportunities aren't here. And they weigh that against the cost of hiring somebody to get them across the border and the risk of crossing the border both from violence on the Mexican side and exposure to the elements."

All that, he said, has an effect.

"It seems like, if they look at the data, the costs and risks are not worth trying to get into the United States because the jobs aren't here."

As to the Arizona-specific anti-immigrant laws, Paul Taylor, Pew's executive vice president, called that "a perfectly legitimate question and one that fascinates all of us." And he said it is a source of legitimate speculation.

"But not by us," Taylor said. "We developed this data based on specific techniques. We're very careful to describe what the data tell us. But we're also very careful to say what the data don't tell us."

But there are indications that while overall numbers of illegal immigrants are down both in the United States and Arizona, there are some significant exceptions.

Pew estimates, for example, that Texas may have added as many as 200,000 to its population between 2007 and 2010, bringing its total unauthorized population up about 1.6 million. And Louisiana nearly doubled the number of illegal immigrants there in the same period, up to 65,000 last year.

One thing likely not a factor in Arizona is SB 1070. That measure, approved by lawmakers last year, gives police new powers to detain and arrest illegal immigrants.

But that law was not yet signed when Pew did its survey last March. And most of the provisions, set to take effect at the end of July, were placed on temporary hold by a federal judge.

The new survey comes amid an effort in Arizona and several other states to deny citizenship to children born in this country if at least one parent cannot prove citizenship or permanent legal residence. But the numbers suggest there is little evidence to claims by some that large numbers of pregnant women were sneaking into this country solely to give birth here to get their children U.S. citizenship.

Passel said that of the 350,000 children born to illegal immigrants in the one-year period ending last march, 61 percent were to parents who had arrived in this country prior to 2004 and another 30 percent were for parents who got here between 2004 and the end of 2007.

But there are indications that illegal immigration is driving up the nation's birth rate. He said children born in families where at least one parent is not here legally amounted to 8 percent of all births, yet illegal immigrants comprise just 3.7 percent of the nation's population.

As to those Arizona-specific numbers, Passel conceded there is a lot of room for error. In fact, while Pew estimates the illegal population in the state at 400,000, the organization said that figure could be as low as 275,000 or as high as 500,000.

Passel said there is a larger margin of error in states with a relatively low percentage of residents who are illegal immigrants - about 6 percent in Arizona according to the new estimates - than in states like California which not only has a slightly higher percentage but the overall numbers are much larger.