National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America

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Business Cycle no Substitute for Working Immigration System

September 22, 2009 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

According to information released by the Census Bureau, there are indications that the U.S. has finally found an effective means for slowing down the flow of undocumented immigration to the U.S.  Is it some new ICE or Border Patrol initiative? No. It’s called recession.


Numbers released by the Census Bureau on September 22nd show that the foreign-born population in the U.S. actually may have decreased slightly from 2007 to 2008. 


Census Bureau data does not reveal the reasons for this decline, but there are a number of clues pointing to the economy as the chief reason.  According to this story in the Washington Post,


"The immigrant losses were particularly pronounced in California, Florida, Arizona and Michigan, all states where the recession hit early and hard."


The groups hardest hit were groups that tended to work in sectors of the economy—construction, for example—that felt the recession early, and where it has been particularly severe.  For example,


"The Census found about 325,000 fewer immigrants from Mexico last year, a fall-off of 2.8 percent."


While some might see the falloff in the immigrant population as the result of immigration enforcement, the slowdown in immigration in the midst of recession looks awfully familiar. 


In 2005, the Pew Hispanic Center released a report in which it studied immigration levels during the economic boom of the late ‘90s and during the recession following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.


"Immigration grew sharply during the rapid economic and job expansion of the 1990s and then declined as the economy went into a downturn after 2001."

“Rise, Peak, and Decline: Trends in U.S. Immigration 1992–2004.” Pew Hispanic Center, September 27, 2005.


After that Pew study, immigration levels turned up again as the economy came out of recession and now the Census tells us that, in the midst of another downturn, immigration levels are plummeting.


As this study from the Migration Policy Institute notes, border apprehension data from the U.S. Border Patrol also shows high correlation between arrests of border crossers and the status of the economy.  The study includes a graph showing the rise and fall of employment, and the corresponding rise and fall of border apprehensions, going back to the beginning of the 1990s.


According to another Pew study, released earlier this year and based on national population surveys from Mexico and the U.S. and on Border Patrol apprehension data, it appears that the flow of Mexican immigrants into the U.S. has slowed, while the number who normally leave each year has held steady.


The flow of immigrants from Mexico to the United States has declined sharply since mid-decade, but there is no evidence of an increase during this period in the number of Mexican-born migrants returning home from the U.S….

“Mexican Immigrants: How Many Come? How Many Leave?” Pew Hispanic Center, July 22, 2009.


In the context of our broken immigration system, when our economy is hot, the pull factor of jobs attracts many more immigrants than there are visas for them to come legally.  With no legal way in, they try to cross in the desert, and some are arrested, causing a spike in border apprehensions.  With unemployment now at nearly 10 percent, the pull factor of jobs is weak, and pressure is off the border.


Now is the perfect time to overhaul our immigration system so that when the economy recovers and the pull of the job market is strong again, immigrants will be able to come legally and work legally.  We should be regulating immigration to the U.S. through a functioning legal immigration system, not through the ups and downs of the business cycle.

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