A Look Behind the US Drop in Undocumented Immigration

A recent New York Times op-ed by Dowell Myers argues that we need to shift from an “immigration policy,” focused on border enforcement, to an “immigrant policy” focused on the integration of those who are already here. The argument is based on reports that illegal immigration to the United States has dropped dramatically. Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications for the Migration Policy Institute, takes a closer look behind the numbers in the context of global migration trends.

Illegal immigration to the United States has plummeted, with inflows significantly dampened by continuing weaknesses in the labor market and beefed-up enforcement at the U.S. borders and within the interior.

Other factors are at play as well: Changing demographics in Mexico and El Salvador that are reducing migration pressures; the likelihood of more vibrant Mexican and Central American export markets (and hence job opportunities) as the Chinese yuan takes on more strength and makes goods from China more expensive; and increasingly attractive destinations for migrants elsewhere in the hemisphere, including Canada, Brazil, and Chile.

Illegal immigration is the migration flow most responsive to labor market changes, so it makes sense this has been the one most disrupted (in the United States and other major immigrant-receiving countries) as a result of the Great Recession. Who wants to undertake an expensive, risky, potentially dangerous trip if there is not the certainty of a job waiting at the other end? Particularly if the word is out that enforcement has heightened, not only at the borders but within the U.S. interior as a result of more robust federal enforcement as well as actions by a number of states.

Legal immigration flows to the United States have been far less affected by the global economic uncertainty. The most recent reports from the State Department and Department of Homeland Security Office of Immigration Statistics show a continuing strong demand for immigrant visas. (Keep in mind that a significant share of green cards are actually given to people already living and working in the United States on non-immigrant visas, such as the H-1B visa.) A look at the latest grants of green cards, though, will show a slight uptick in green cards for new arrivals.

What has gone down slightly is adjustment of status for people already in the United States, and that most likely has more to do with adjudications and processing than it does with a reduced desire to come to the United States.

A look at the most recent non-immigrant admissions (H-1B, student visas, intracompany transfers, etc.) shows that most categories are up, which suggests there is not a lessening of interest in the United States as a work/life destination.

Internationally, estimates by the United Nations dating to 1990 have shown that about 3 percent of the world’s population, or 214 million people, is comprised of international migrants. While that figure has held largely steady as a share of the world’s population, what has changed in recent decades is the increasing concentration of that migrant population in wealthy countries. While the recession may have dampened some movement for a time, there are some interesting realignments that may be taking place. For example:

In Latin America, Brazil and Chile, for example, have been proving more attractive draws for regional migration as their economies have outperformed those of their neighbors.

In Asia, there will be more intra-Asian international migration, lessening the pool of highly skilled migrants currently inclined towards North America or Europe. Part of that is because of very different demographics in the region, with some populations, such as China’s, aging more rapidly than others.

In Europe, countries that were historically countries of emigration but that became countries of immigration in recent years (Ireland and Greece in particular) may be reverting to their pasts. There are many anecdotal stories of skilled Greeks striking out for Australia, the Irish fanning out across Europe and the United States, the Portuguese heading back to the Lusophone world that was once a part of their empire (particularly Angola). Data collection is lagging this reality, but the 2011 and 2012 data, when out, should tell this story more clearly.

Still, amid the discussion about a global race for international migrants, it is worth remembering that any full-fledged competition likely will be reserved for a very small number of the most highly skilled possessors of prized knowledge — in IT, engineering, and science, for example — and not for the vast majority of would-be migrants. That said, some governments (Canada, Singapore, United Kingdom, Australia, and Europe) have been more mindful in their policymaking in recent years, enabling them to go after the talent, at all skill levels, that complements their labor market needs. And there are demographic, educational, and economic realignments taking place that eventually may make the United States and other key migrant-receiving nations no longer the most prized destinations for countless would-be migrants around the globe.