Illegal Immigrants Move from America's Edges to the Center

Illegal Immigrants Move from America's Edges to the Center
Illegal Immigrants Move from America's Edges to the Center

Unauthorized immigrants have long been relegated to the fringes of the U.S. labor market. But according to a recent Pew Research Center study, that contingent is moving toward the center -- at least in the geographic sense.

Illegal immigrants are moving away from New York, Florida and the Mountain West states like Arizona, Utah and Nevada, and moving toward states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, the Pew Hispanic Center said in a report released last week.

Between 2007 and 2010, Florida's illegal immigrant population fell by 2.3% to 825,000, marking the largest percentage drop for a single state, while the number of undocumented immigrants in New York fell 2% to 625,000. Arizona, Utah and Nevada's collective illegal immigrant population fell 1.6% to 700,000.

Meanwhile, the undocumented immigrant population in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma rose by 2.4% to 1.8 million people over the same time period. California continues to host the largest population of illegal immigrants by far, accounting for 2.55 million, or 23% of the country's total last year, according to the report.

Where the Jobs Are

The migration trends of illegal immigrants may offer a more accurate, up-to-the-minute portrayal of how regional economies are doing than the movement trends of U.S. citizens, who are more likely to be tied down by permanent jobs and family obligations.

"At the national level, ups and downs in the unauthorized immigrant population tend to be associated with economic changes, so it makes sense that this could be a major factor at the state level, too," says D'Vera Cohn, senior writer at the Pew Research Center and one of the report's authors.

For instance, Nevada over the past decade has experienced a classic boom-and-bust economic cycle, with a surge in real estate activity being followed by a steep drop in both housing prices and tourism to Las Vegas. Utah has also seen its economy slow.

"In Nevada, the high unemployment, collapse of construction and slippage in tourism have all taken their toll," says Harley Shaiken, professor of education and geography at UC-Berkeley. "Regional variations reflect various issues. In Louisiana, for example, rebuilding from Katrina and the BP oil disaster both generated a need for labor."

Hostile Politics On Both Sides of the Border

Politics can't be overlooked either. Most notably, Arizona last year signed the country's strictest bill on illegal immigrants into law, which led to widespread controversy over the state's attitude toward all immigrants. Enactment of the law led to tourism and product boycotts from citizens and groups in other parts of the U.S., who felt that the law would encourage harassment of and discrimination against Latinos. Nearly six out of 10 unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. come from Mexico, and with the addition of other Latin American countries, that number rises to about eight out of 10.

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"In places like Arizona, the economy has been affected by some of the boycotts," says Martha Menchaca, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, who adds that the same geographic trends likely apply to legal immigrants and naturalized citizens as well. "If you're going to be in a state where they're hostile to you because of the way you speak, you're going to leave."

Regardless, for the country as a whole, the unauthorized immigrant population was little changed in 2010 after two straight years of declines, indicating that political and economic problems abroad may again be outweighing the effects of stricter border policies and a high U.S. unemployment rate on immigration.

In 2010, about 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants were in the U.S. -- about one in 27 people in the country. That was down from 12 million in 2007, though up from 8.4 million at the beginning of the decade.

A Renewed Flow of Immigrants?

What these shifts mean for the future of unauthorized immigrants within specific U.S. regions is anyone's guess, given the temporary nature of the work often filled by undocumented workers. Still, with the U.S. economy expecting to rebound, the total number of immigrants will likely reverse its recent decline over the next few years, Shaiken says.

"The draw of a stronger economy and problems at home are likely to trump an unfavorable political atmosphere in the U.S.," says Shaiken. "Jobs here are vital, and the drug violence in Central America and Mexico is both slowing their economies and fueling immigration."