There were 11.1 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally in March 2009, down from a peak of 12 million two years earlier, the Pew Hispanic Center said in a report issued Wednesday. From 2007 to 2009, the number of illegals entering the country shrank to about 300,000 per year, down by nearly two-thirds from the estimated 850,000 per year from March 2000 to March 2005.
"The decrease represents the first significant reversal in the growth of this population over the past two decades," the report said.
The biggest drop -- 22 percent from 2007 to 2009 -- was in the number of unauthorized immigrants from Latin American countries other than Mexico, it said. And the decline was most apparent along the United States' Southeast coast -- Florida, Virginia, Delaware and Georgia -- as well as in Western mountain states like Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and Utah.
That finding shows that despite Arizona's controversial new immigration law, as well as stepped-up immigration enforcement along America's Southwestern border, there hasn't been a mass exodus of Mexicans fleeing the U.S. for their home country. That's even despite a sour U.S. economy where work opportunities for Mexicans have been fewer than in previous years.
"They are settled here," Pia M. Orrenius, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, told The New York Times. "It is going to take more than a business cycle for them to move back to Mexico."
The report also shows that a yearslong debate over immigration in Arizona, which resulted in a tougher new law passed earlier this year, didn't have a huge impact on the number of illegal immigrants there. Arizona's new law allows police to question suspected illegals about their immigration status, but the measure is on hold pending legal challenges.
The state was among several that saw decreasing populations of unauthorized immigrants, but it didn't have the highest number.
The Pew report doesn't give definitive reasons for the immigration drop but cites possible contributing factors as the weakened U.S. economy and increased difficulties in crossing the Southern U.S. border.
"Jobs are scarce, and the jobs we can find are more difficult to get because bosses want to see your immigration documents,'' Teresa Guevara, an undocumented Mexican immigrant to Florida, told The Miami Herald.
The U.S. government also credited its own border-tightening measures as contributing to the illegal immigration drop.
"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 Homeland Security deputy press secretary Matt Chandler, according to the Herald.
But some experts said the economy was more to blame for the drop, rather than U.S. law enforcement policies.
"Some people will spin this to say the heightened security is working," Christine Thurlow Brenner, a professor of public policy at New Jersey's Rutgers University, told The Boston Herald. "To me, the decline demonstrates that jobs really are the key attractor."
The Pew report is based mostly on census data. The center estimated the number of illegal immigrants by subtracting the number of legal, documented immigrants from the total number of foreign-born people living in the country, it said.