By MICHAEL DOYLE
September 27, 2005
Some 1.2 million migrants entered the country last year. While still 24 percent less than the all-time high reached in 2000, the tide is surging back to what it was in the mid-1990s. Illegal immigration, in particular, is on the rise again.
Impeccably timed as Congress weighs new immigration reforms, the study by the non-partisan Pew Hispanic Center sheds fresh light on the U.S. border's periodically swinging door.
"Rather than undergoing a continuous increase in immigrant levels as is commonly perceived, the United States experienced a sharp spike in immigration flows over the past decade that had a distinct beginning, middle and end," study authors Roberto Suro and Jeffrey Passel noted.
This rise-and-fall pattern applies to both legal and illegal immigrants as well as across different countries, the analysts believe.
California still attracts many of the new migrants, with an estimated 239,000 now settling in annually, but an increasing number are heading for states like Georgia, North Carolina and Iowa. Politically, that could help draw more lawmakers into the immigration debate that's moved slowly on Capitol Hill so far this year.
The political anxieties already being voiced in border states are also given heed in the new 64-page study. Last year, the number of illegal immigrants outpaced the number of legal permanent resident migrants.
An estimated 562,000 unauthorized migrants entered the United States last year, analysts concluded, while the number of legal permanent resident migrants was about 455,000. An additional 200,000 or so entered under temporary visas.
"The Pew report is another indicator that the immigration system is broken," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, declared in a statement.
Cornyn chairs the Senate immigration, border security and citizenship subcommittee, and emphasizes a hard-line approach toward enforcement. Other lawmakers - including California Reps. Jim Costa, a Democrat, and George Radanovich, a Republican - emphasize alternative proposals that grant legal U.S. status to illegal farm workers.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is preparing her a bill that would also grant legal status for some farm workers, though with stricter work requirements than the so-called AgJobs bill backed by Costa, Radanovich and many farm groups.
"I can't wait another year," Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, said of the various proposals. "A huge amount of our workforce has gone into construction (and) I have hardly any labor anymore to pick my crops."
Cunha - whose group has joined with the Western United Dairymen, based in Modesto, Calif., and others to back agricultural guest-worker legislation - said the "pure manpower shortage" he's seen undercuts arguments that immigration is rebounding. He deemed it progress that Feinstein is preparing her own immigration proposal so that serious negotiations can pick up steam.
Congress can certainly control some of this. Tighter border security and immigration measures enacted following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks coincided with the decline from the record 1.5 million migrants who entered in 2000.
In another example of how Congress can open and close borders, the study notes that India experienced a dramatic 77 percent increase in migrants going to the United States. That reflected a move led in the late 1990s by former Rep. Cal Dooley, D-Calif., and others to increase the number of high-tech visas.
Some immigration trends, though, remains beyond Capitol Hill's immediate reach.
"Immigration grew sharply during the rapid economic and job expansion of the 1990s and then declined as the economy went into a downturn after 2001," the study's authors report.
The dramatic spike and decline reached historic proportions. Suro, a former Washington Post reporter, and Passel, a demographer with a Ph.D. in social relations, likened it to the period following World War I and the Irish potato famine. Their study combined data from the 2000 Census along with more recent Census Bureau surveys to examine the foreign-born population.
An estimated 31.1 million foreign-born persons lived in the United States as of the 2000 Census. In 1970, only 9.6 million U.S. residents were foreign-born.
Mexico alone sends an estimated 400,000 migrants a year, though this is less than the peak from several years ago that some analysts peg at 650,000.
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