updated 3/7/2006 10:49:26 AM ET 2006-03-07T15:49:26

The number of illegal immigrants in the United States has grown to as high as 12 million, according to a new estimate released Tuesday as the Senate considers legislation aimed at tightening America’s borders.

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The Pew Hispanic Center report estimated that undocumented workers fill one out of every four agricultural jobs, 17 percent of all office and house cleaning positions, 14 percent of construction jobs, and 12 percent of those who work in food preparation.

The report found that the pace of illegal immigration is increasing, despite government efforts to crack down.

“It’s been very hard to find any effect from border security,” said Jeffrey Passel, a senior research associate at the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center and the author of the report.

Except one: Mexicans who make it to the United States illegally are staying longer, perhaps because it is getting harder and more expensive to move back and forth across the border, Passel said.

“The security has done more to keep people from going back to Mexico than it has to keep them from coming in,” Passel said in an interview.

It is difficult to accurately measure the number of illegal immigrants in the United States, but most public agencies and private groups had settled on a figure of about 11 million.

The Pew Hispanic Center used Census Bureau data to estimate that the United States had 11.1 million illegal immigrants in March 2005. The center used monthly population estimates to project a current illegal population of 11.5 million to 12 million.

The report estimates that 850,000 illegal immigrants have arrived in United States each year since 2000.

Legislative approaches
President Bush has called for a program that would grant temporary worker status to illegal immigrants already here. The House rejected the program and instead passed a border security bill last year that pleased those calling for a crackdown on illegal immigration.

The Senate is trying to address both border security and the temporary worker program, but consensus has been elusive. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has said he hopes his committee will produce a bill by the end of March.

Business leaders and advocates fighting for immigrants’ rights argue that America’s economy would collapse if all the undocumented workers were deported.

Illegal immigrants make up about 5 percent of the U.S. work force, the Pew report said. About 7.2 million illegal immigrants are employed, the report said.

“Undocumented immigrants do pay taxes, and they do contribute to the economic, social and cultural developments of their communities,” said Peta Ikambana of the American Friends Service Committee, a social justice group that advocates for immigrants’ rights. The group was organizing a rally near the Capitol on Tuesday to protest the House bill.

“Just building walls will not stop immigration,” Ikambana said. “Those that are here will just go underground.”

Advocate for crackdown
Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates tougher border enforcement, said he isn’t surprised that the number of illegal immigrants continues to climb. He called the government’s crackdown halfhearted at best.

Camarota pointed to a recent government report showing that very few businesses are fined for hiring illegal immigrants. The government filed only three notices that it intended to fine companies in 2004, down from 417 notices in 1999, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.

Camarota said there would be plenty of Americans willing to accept jobs done by illegal immigrants, if they paid adequate wages and benefits.

The report by the Pew Hispanic Center said Mexicans make up 56 percent of illegal immigrants. An additional 22 percent come from other Latin American countries, mainly in Central America, the report said.

About 13 percent are from Asia, while Europe and Canada combined for 6 percent.

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