Recession May Be Driving Off Illegals

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Maria Stenzel / National Geographic / Getty

Roofers unload tiles on the roof of a new housing development near Las Vegas.

In the newly minted general election, there's one topic both candidates will both try to avoid: immigration reform. Specifically, how to salve popular anger at illegal immigrants without damaging an economy that has become reliant on their labor. With too many deportations, crops will rot in the field. But with too few, Minutemen with desert-colored Ghillie suits and night-vision goggles start patrolling the border.

Politicians, however, may now have a tantalizing option for the dilemma of whether to deport or not to deport: do nothing at all. The U.S. economic downturn may already be encouraging undocumented workers to leave the country or not come over in the first place. A Pew Hispanic Center report released on Wednesday morning indicates for the first time that the sinking economy has caught up with the Hispanic workforce with a vengeance. The main culprit, says report author Rakesh Kochhar, is job loss in the Latino-heavy construction sector.

First, the numbers: the Hispanic jobless rate — immigrant and native-born alike — climbed to 6.5% in the first quarter of '08 (non-Hispanics are at 4.7%). Compare that to late 2006, when Hispanic unemployment rates got closer than ever before to non-Hispanic rates, at 4.9% to 4.4%. Latinos have lost a lot of ground, particularly the immigrants among them. Their immigrant unemployment rate is 7.5% now; for those who have arrived since 2000, it's 9.3%.

The report doesn't distinguish between illegal and legal immigrants, but it's known that illegal workers are overrepresented in construction, the industry that has taken the the biggest lumps. Over 220,000 Hispanic immigrants lost construction jobs in the last year. Some of those workers found jobs in the service sector or in health care, but overall, it's a grim picture. "We've been hearing about construction hitting the skids for some time," says Kochhar. "But it wasn't really until the second quarter of 2007 that the workforce was affected. It was delayed for them, but now it's coming hard and fast."

So are undocumented workers headed home? Perhaps — though it's not that simple. In a naturally free labor market, high unemployment would prod many immigrants to just pack themselves up and go back home. This is called "self-deportation," the Holy Grail of everyone from hardhearted nativists to compassionate immigration reformers. It avoids the unseemly mess of raids and detention centers. It's more humane, it's cheaper, it's more effective.

But self-deportation is complicated by the increasingly sealed U.S.-Mexico border. Fewer people are coming into the U.S., says Douglas Massey, Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. But fewer people are voluntarily leaving. They worry that they'll never be able to sneak back in if they leave now. And it's so expensive and risky to cross these days that those who have already made it over feel extra pressure to stay and make good on their gamble to come to the States, even if that means waiting out a recession. "A lot of [undocumented workers] settled down here after we militarized the border," says Massey.

Still, there has been undeniable attrition in the illegal population. Remittances sent to Mexico were nearly flat from 2006 to 2007, a stagnation that Mexico’s central bank blamed on slackening immigration. The U.S. Border Patrol reports that from January 1 to May 15 of this year, apprehensions of illegal immigrants were down 15% from the same period in 2007. The question is what's driving this apparent decline: a stagnant economy or heightened immigration crackdowns?

For Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, the answer is clear. "What we've seen over the past year or so," he says, "is that immigration services have been given a green light by the White House to actually do its job." A bad economy may grease an exodus, he says, but it wouldn't even start without the threat of enforcement.

Indeed, the largest immigration raid on a single site in modern history took place on May 12 at a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. And, as Krikorian points out, there are more identity-theft prosecutions, more use of employee verification systems around the country. But Tomás Jiménez, a fellow at the New America Foundation, says that the vast majority of municipalities around the country haven't enacted any anti-immigration laws or seen any raids. So it's unlikely that most workers are leaving out of fear. "This happens a lot," he says. "DHS and border patrol taking credit for things that are actually driven by other forces."

Jiménez worries that the government will just pour more recession dollars into immigration raids and border enforcement at a time when it can least afford it. It wouldn't be the first time strapped federal budgets have been pressed into similar service: almost half the Mexican population in the U.S. was deported during the Great Depression of the 1930s, more than 400,000 people, often at considerable expense (at the height of the Depression, Los Angeles paid $77,000 for a single batch of 6,024 to be deported to Mexico).

All sides agree they need more research to more precisely tell what is influencing people's decisions to stay or leave. After all, each would-be migrant has his or her unique collection of anxieties and hopes. Some fear detention; some fear unemployment. One thing is clear: for America's illegal immigrants, both outcomes are more likely this year than last.