Number of illegal immigrants holds steady in U.S.

/ Source: The Associated Press

After a dropoff during the recession, illegal immigrants seeking to sneak across the U.S. border may be ready to move again.

A new study released Tuesday finds the number of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. last year was roughly 11.2 million, a number virtually unchanged from 2009. In that year, the level of illegal immigration declined for the first time in two decades, dropping 8 percent from 2007, as a sour economy and stepped-up border enforcement made it harder or less desirable for undocumented workers to enter from Mexico.

The number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. labor force also was unchanged last year at 8 million, representing about 5 percent of workers in the U.S., after hitting a peak of 8.4 million in 2007, according to the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center, which based its analysis on census survey data.

States posting some of the biggest declines in the number of illegal immigrants since 2007 included Florida, New York, Colorado and Virginia. Unauthorized immigrants in three Mountain West states — Arizona, Nevada and Utah — also edged lower.

In contrast, illegal immigration was on the rise in Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, with the combined populations of these states increasing from 1.6 million in 2007 to 1.8 million last year, according to the study.

Jeffrey S. Passel, a senior demographer at Pew who co-wrote the report, said it was difficult to discern whether the latest numbers were a sign that illegal immigration was back on the upswing. But he noted that over the last two decades, illegal immigration in the U.S. has steadily increased or remained flat during economic downturns — with the decline in illegal immigrants in 2009 being the exception.

"It's still expensive and dangerous to sneak across the border, and the likelihood of being able to find a job in the U.S. is not very good. But things are still better here than in Mexico," Passel said.

According to the Pew study, the number of illegal immigrants has risen from roughly 8.4 million estimated in 2000. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, illegal immigration was largely unchanged before spiking higher during the mid-decade housing boom. The level of illegal immigrants reached a peak of 12 million in 2007, experts say.

Currently, illegal immigrants make up roughly 4 percent of the U.S. population — a number largely unchanged from previous years.

Steve A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington group that advocates tighter immigration policies, said it wasn't surprising that illegal immigration had stopped declining. He predicted the numbers will soon pick up, citing some improvement in the U.S. economy as well as the Obama administration's "promise of legalization to undocumented workers."

"There's no reason for these numbers to go down," Camarota said. "Our legal policy remains very permissive, and we're not enforcing the law."

Other Pew findings:

—Mexicans make up the majority of the illegal immigrant population at 58 percent, or 6.5 million. They are followed by people from other Latin American countries at 23 percent, or 2.6 million; Asia at 11 percent or 1.3 million; Europe and Canada at 4 percent or 500,000; and African countries and other nations at 3 percent, or 400,000.

—The states with the highest percentage of illegal immigrants were Nevada (7.2 percent), California (6.8 percent), Texas (6.7 percent) and New Jersey (6.2 percent).

—About 350,000 newborns last year had at least one illegal immigrant parent, representing 8 percent of all births. That share is largely unchanged from 2009.

The Pew analysis is based on the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey through March 2010. Because the Census Bureau does not ask people about their immigration status, the estimate on illegal immigrants is derived largely by subtracting the estimated legal immigrant population from the total foreign-born population. It is a method that has been used by the government and Pew for many years and is generally accepted.