Saturday, October 10, 2009




For most of the last 20 years, anti-illegal immigration activists have steadfastly maintained that many of the undocumented come to America to take advantage of public benefits from schools to welfare to instant automatic citizenship for children born in this country.

The most extreme among them call the illegals’ presence an invasion, often speculating that it’s a government-encouraged movement by Mexicans to take back the vast American Southwest, lost to Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War in February 1848.

But the latest numbers on illegal immigration activity and movements demonstrate that the waves of undocumented workers coming to this country are here principally for one reason: work.

That’s made clear by a series of reports from agencies like the U.S. Census Bureau, the Pew Hispanic Center and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, all of which agree that tide of illegal northbound movement across the U.S.-Mexico border is now at a 35-year ebb. At the same time, California’s share of the illegal immigrant populace is the lowest in modern times.

Increased enforcement may be playing some role in the profound changes seen both along the border and around America. But the real story here can be found in the same way as with many other stories: follow the money.

It turns out that when illegal immigrants can’t earn money here, they move away no matter what public benefits they might receive if they stay. So invasion and nationalistic desire for territory apparently never had much to do with the illegal immigration tide. Rather, it’s always been about jobs and the money those jobs allow immigrants to send their children and families who stayed behind.

Here are some of the new facts:

Apprehensions of illegal immigrants along the border are off 34 percent over the last two years, down to 662,000 in 2008 from the peak of about 1 million in 2004, according to the Border Patrol. While 35 percent of new immigrants – legal and illegal – at least initially settled in California during the 1980s, by 2007 that figure had dropped to 19 percent, according to a study by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Fear of increased enforcement may be one reason for the lessened pressure at the border, as the national percentage of new hires screened by the federal E-Verify program rose last spring to 25 percent, up from just 1 percent soon after the program begin in early 2007.

Nevertheless, that still means three-fourths of all new hires here are not screened for immigration status, making it unlikely enforcement alone is the reason for the drop in illegal immigration.

So the deepest reason for the slowdown has become clear: Recession. When jobs are hard to find in the traditional categories filled by illegals, from agricultural field labor that’s been hit by drought-related fallowing of hundreds of square miles of farmland to construction jobs vastly reduced by the real estate collapse, illegal immigrants are likely to stay home or go home.

When Americans lessen spending because their own jobs are insecure and their investments have tanked, roofs often go unfixed, resort vacancy rates rise and far fewer nannies are hired. All of which cause illegal immigrants to stay home, or go home.

Combine this with the increased trend for immigrants, both legal and illegal, to head straight for areas with jobs rather than staying awhile in traditional immigrant centers like Los Angeles and Oakland, and California’s percentage of the new immigrant population drops while the percentage rises for places like Iowa and Minnesota and North Carolina.

This may represent a form of triumph for anti-illegal immigration activists like the folks who pushed the 1994 Proposition 187 with its ban on public services for illegals and a currently circulating proposed ballot initiative that would attempt to deny citizenship to children of illegals. But it comes mainly because of the overall miserable state of the economy.

And it puts the lie to claims by those same activists that illegal immigrants are one of the main causes of California’s repeated budget crises. For it there are few illegals in the state, the cost of schooling their children, treating them in emergency rooms and providing other services has surely dropped.

All of which means there’s a new immigration reality in California today, one that’s not yet completely understood and one that may last no longer than the economic downturn and the real estate and stock market troubles to which it is plainly linked.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

1 comment:

  1. Excellent piece!! Will use it after October 23--good to see. Glad to have the new facts--you make a good point--but so what? They are illegal, for whatever reason they come here.

    Steve Frank