U.S. Border Patrol Agent Jerry Conlin looks out over Tijuana, Mexico, along a border wall June 13, where it ends at the base of a hill in San Diego.
(Photo: Gregory Bull, AP)
WASHINGTON - After leveling off in recent years, illegal immigration may be back on the rise, according to a new study that will provide ammunition to House Republicans who want to secure the southwest border with Mexico before considering a broader overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.
The total number of undocumented immigrants living in the USA had remained flat in recent years, with as many entering the country as leaving it. Butthe report by the non-partisan Pew Research Center released Monday found that there were 11.7 undocumented immigrants in the USA in 2012, approaching the nation's all-time high of 12.2 million in 2007.
The authors of the report said it was difficult to attribute the possible increase to any one factor. Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project, said rises and falls in illegal immigration have traditionally mirrored the state of the U.S. economy.
"Historically, the patterns seem to be strongly related to employment opportunities," Passel said.
The new figures come as Congress is trying to pass a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration laws designed to stop future waves of undocumented immigrants in the country.
The Senate passed a bill in July that would dedicate $46 billion to securing America's southern border with Mexico and allow most of those 11.7 million undocumented immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship after 13 years. The House has taken a far different approach, slowly considering smaller bills that focus mostly on border security and immigration enforcement.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee that has handled most of the immigration bills, said Pew's report only solidifies their approach.
"The recent increase in illegal immigration invalidates the Obama administration's narrative that our borders are more secure than ever," Goodlatte said in a statement. "Any successful immigration reform must first secure the border and guarantee the enforcement of our laws before other necessary improvements are made."
That sentiment was echoed by Rosemary Jenks, director of governments relations for NumbersUSA, a group that opposed the Senate bill. She said Obama's Department of Homeland Security has methodically cut back on worksite raids targeting undocumented workers and scaled back deportations, leaving "absolutely no disincentive" for people in other countries thinking about trying to enter the USA illegally.
"(The new numbers) mean we obviously do not have secure borders," Jenks said. "Once an illegal alien is in the United States, there is virtually no fear of being caught and removed. This administration has undermined immigration enforcement consistently, and that's having an impact."
Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a business lobby that supported the Senate immigration bill, said the economy, not border security, was to blame.
Jacoby said there were three main reasons that undocumented immigration fell so dramatically during a stretch from 2007 to 2009. The U.S. economy was shrinking, leading to fewer jobs. Border enforcement continued getting tougher, evidenced by the Obama administration deporting about 400,000 people a year. And the Mexican economy was improving to the point that many would-be immigrants stayed home.
"Two of those things have not changed," Jacoby said. "Border enforcement is still very tough. And the situation in Mexico has not turned south. So the only conclusion I can come up with is the U.S. economy is improving and attracting more workers."
"Unauthorized immigrants know before the rest of us when the economy has improved," she said.