The rise and fall of US immigration

Figures suggest more Asians than Hispanics now enter the US illegally. Picture: AP
Figures suggest more Asians than Hispanics now enter the US illegally. Picture: AP
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ILLEGAL immigration is declining for the first time in America in more than a decade.

New census data estimates the number of illegal immigrants at 11.1 million last year down from a peak of 12 million in 2007, reflecting a fall in immigration from South and Central America, with so-called Hispanic immigration being topped for the first time since 1910 by Asians.

And experts predict this trend will continue.

Immigration from Mexico and the rest of Latin America, they say, is unlikely to approach its mid-2000 peak again, due to the weakened US economy and an ageing Mexican population.

An estimated 80 per cent of all illegal immigration comes from America’s southern neighbours.

The new statistics suggest an uphill battle for the Republicans, who passed legislation in the House last week that would extend citizenship to a limited pool of foreign students with advanced degrees but who are divided on whether to pursue broader immigration controls.

In all, the biggest surge of immigration in modern US history may be recorded as occurring in the mid-1990s to early 2000s, yielding illegal residents who now have been settled in the US for ten years or more. They include migrants who arrived as teenagers and are increasingly at risk of “ageing out” of congress proposals that offer a pathway to citizenship for younger adults.

“The priority now is to push a vigorous debate about the undocumented people already here,” said Jose Antonio Vargas, 31, a journalist from the Philippines. “We want to become citizens and not face the threat of deportation or be treated as second class,” said Mr Vargas, whose campaign, Define American, along with the young immigrant group United We Dream, have been pushing for citizenship for all illegal immigrants.

They point to a strong Latino and Asian-American turnout for President Barack Obama in last month’s election as evidence of public support for a broad overhaul of immigration law.

Earlier this year, Mr Obama extended to many younger immigrants temporary reprieves from deportation. But Mr Vargas, who has lived in the US since 1993, has become too old to qualify.

“This conversation is a question about how we as a nation define who is an American,” he said, noting that if politicians don’t embrace immigration overhaul now, a rapidly growing bloc of minority voters may soon do it for them. “If you want us to pay a fine to become a citizen, OK. If you want us to pay back taxes, absolutely. If you want us to speak English, I speak English. But we can’t tread water on this issue any more,” he said.

The census data shows that 11.1 million, or 28 per cent, of the foreign-born population in the US consists of illegal immigrants, virtually unchanged since 2009 and roughly equal to the level of 2005. An additional 12.2 million foreign-born people, 31 per cent, are legal permanent residents with green cards. And 15.1 million, or 37 per cent, are naturalised US citizens.

Fewer Mexican workers are entering the US, while many of those immigrants already there are opting to return to their homeland, resulting in zero net migration from Mexico.

In 2007, legal and illegal immigrants made up equally large shares of the foreign-born population, at 31 per cent, due to ballooning numbers of new unauthorised migrants seeking US construction jobs during the mid-2000s housing boom. Naturalised US citizens then represented 35 percent.