Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - California's 1990s-era recession is responsible for a contemporary demographic trend -- the state is no longer the top destination for undocumented immigrants, according to the co-author of a report released Monday.
California still has the nation's highest number of unauthorized immigrants who sneaked across the border or remained in the U.S. after their visas expired, according to the Pew Research Center study.
The nonpartisan group's analysis of Census Bureau data and U.S. immigration statistics showed that the nation's undocumented immigrant population -- an estimated 11.7 million last year -- may be rising after falling during the recent recession, which lasted from December 2007-June 2009, and whose effects are lingering to this day.
In 2012, 2.45 million unauthorized residents lived in California, more than in any other state, according to the Pew report. That number has held steady since 2007, when the state's undocumented population peaked at 2.8 million after growing every year since 1990, according to the report.
The study also showed that California was home to 21 percent of all unauthorized immigrants in 2012, compared to 42 percent in 1990. About 1.5 million undocumented immigrants lived in California in 1990.
When California's economy went bust in the early 1990s, many native-born residents and legal and undocumented immigrants moved out, said Jeffrey Passel, a co-author of the report and a demographer at the Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project.
The undocumented workers moved to the Midwest and began migrating to the Southeast around this time, Passel said in a conference call with reporters. Soon, people started moving from Mexico and other countries directly to, say, Iowa or North Carolina rather than using California as their transit point.
"You ended up with unauthorized immigrant communities starting in what a lot of people call 'new destination' states," he said. "What we are seeing today is the result of that pattern that changed 15 to 20 years ago. . . . The new destinations largely reflected the economic opportunities that were available in the 1990s in these places."
Before the 1990s recession, California's economy outperformed the nation and Californians enjoyed bigger incomes and higher employment levels than their counterparts elsewhere. California was hit harder and took longer to recover from the recession compared to many other states, according to a 1995 report by the California Legislative Analyst's Office.
In 2012, 60 percent of the nation's undocumented immigrants lived in California, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, Illinois and New York, the Pew report said. Of those, only Texas saw its undocumented numbers grow from 2007-2011, according to the study.
Unauthorized immigrants may make up a smaller percentage of the overall California population today but they constitute the bulk of workforce in an important industry -- agriculture. The Obama administration said in July that 73 percent of California's agricultural workers are non-citizens -- more than anywhere else in the country -- and a majority of them are undocumented.
The Pew report said that the number of undocumented immigrants living across the U.S. is less than the country's all-time high of 12.2 million in 2007 -- right before the national economy tanked. Passel said immigration levels tend to rise when the economy is good and fall when it's sputtering.
About 6 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. last year were from Mexico. However, the 2012 number was nearly 1 million less than the estimated 7 million Mexicans who lived in the U.S. without proper documentation in 2007, Passel said.
The number of undocumented Mexican nationals in the U.S. leveled off in 2010 and shows no sign of going back up, he said. The data suggest, he said, that the gradual population increase last year may have resulted from more undocumented immigrants arriving in the U.S. from countries other than Mexico.
The new findings come as Congress tries to overhaul immigration laws designed to stop future waves of undocumented immigrants coming into the U.S.
The Senate passed a bill in July that would dedicate $46 billion to securing America's southern border with Mexico and allow most undocumented immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship after 13 years. Republicans in the House of Representatives who are reluctant to grant citizenship to undocumented immigrants before fully securing the border are sure to use the new data to bolster their case.
Contributing: Alan Gomez, USA TODAY