For most of the last 20 years, anti-illegal immigration activists have steadfastly maintained that many of the undocumented come to America mostly for public benefits ranging from schools to welfare to the automatic citizenship bestowed on every child born in this country.
The most extreme among them call the illegals’ presence an invasion, often claiming it’s a government-backed 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 most 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 the 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 both along the border and around America. But the real story here can be found 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 illegal immigration. Rather, it’s always been about jobs and the money those jobs allow immigrants to send their children and families who stay 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 proportion 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 began in early 2007.
That still leaves three-fourths of all new hires unscreened for immigration status, making it unlikely that enforcement alone caused the drop in illegal immigration.
So the deepest reason for the slowdown has become clear: Recession. Illegal immigrants are likely to stay home or go home when jobs are hard to find in the categories they traditionally fill, from agricultural field labor that’s been hit by drought-related fallowing of farmland to construction jobs vastly reduced by the real estate collapse.
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 causes 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 proportion 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 seeks 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 if there are fewer illegals in the state, the cost of schooling their children, treating them in emergency rooms and providing other services has surely dropped — but the budget crisis is as bad as ever.
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 [email protected] For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net