New census data released Thursday affirm a clear and sustained drop in illegal immigration, ending more than a decade of increases.
The number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. dropped to an estimated 11.1 million last year from a peak of 12 million in 2007, part of an overall waning of Hispanic immigration. For the first time since 1910, Hispanic immigration last year was topped by immigrants from Asia.
Demographers say that illegal Hispanic immigration - 80 percent of all illegal immigration comes from Mexico and Latin America - isn't likely to approach its mid-2000 peak again, due in part to a weakened U.S. economy and stronger enforcement, but also because of a graying of the Mexican population.
The finding suggests an uphill battle for the Republicans, who passed legislation in the House last week that would extend citizenship to a limited pool of foreign students with advanced degrees but who are sharply divided on whether to pursue broader immigration measures.
In all, the biggest surge of immigration in modern U.S. history ultimately may be recorded as occurring in the mid-1990s to early 2000s, yielding illegal residents who now have been settled in the U.S. for 10 years or more. They include migrants who arrived here as teens and are increasingly at risk of "aging out" of congressional proposals such as the DREAM Act that offer a pathway to citizenship for younger adults.
"The priority now is to push a vigorous debate about the undocumented people already here," said Jose Antonio Vargas, 31, a journalist from the Philippines and former Daily News intern. "We want to become citizens and not face the threat of deportation or be treated as second class," said Vargas, whose campaign, Define American, along with the young immigrant group United We Dream, have been pushing for citizenship for the entire illegal population in the U.S. The groups point to a strong Latino and Asian-American turnout for President Obama in last month's election as evidence of public support for a broad overhaul of U.S. immigration laws.
Earlier this year, Obama extended to many younger immigrants temporary reprieves from deportation. But Vargas, who has lived in the U.S. since 1993 and appeared this year on the cover of Time magazine with other immigrants who lacked legal status, has become too old to qualify.
"This conversation is a question about how we as a nation define who is an American," Vargas said, noting that if politicians don't embrace immigration overhaul now, a rapidly growing bloc of minority voters may soon do it for them. "If you want us to pay a fine to become a citizen, OK. If you want us to pay back taxes, absolutely. If you want us to speak English, I speak English. But we can't tread water on this issue anymore."
Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Research Center and a former Census Bureau official, said U.S. immigration policies will have a significant impact in shaping a future U.S. labor force, which is projected to shrink by 2030. Aging white baby boomers, many in specialized or management roles, are beginning to retire. Mexican immigration, which has helped fill needs in farming, home health care and other low-wage U.S. jobs, has leveled off.
"Immigration is one way to boost the number of workers in the population," he said, but the next wave of needed immigrants is likely to come from somewhere other than Mexico. "We are not going to see a return to the levels of Mexican unauthorized immigration of a decade ago."
The immigration shift may have an impact on the future racial and ethnic makeup of the U.S., pushing back official government estimates as to when whites will no longer be a majority in the country. The Census Bureau originally reported in 2008 that white children would become a minority in 2023 and the overall white population would follow in 2042. But the agency has since suggested that the tipping points may arrive later, due to a slowdown in mostly Hispanic immigration. New census projections will be released next week.
It all depends "on the availability of jobs as well as changes in federal and state immigration policies," said Mark Mather, associate vice president of the Population Reference Bureau.
Census Bureau data showed that 11.1 million, or 28 percent, of the foreign-born population in the U.S. consists of illegal immigrants, virtually unchanged since 2009 and roughly equal to the level of 2005. An additional 12.2 million foreign-born people, 31 percent, are legal permanent residents with green cards. And 15.1 million, or 37 percent, are naturalized U.S. citizens.
Fewer Mexican workers are entering the U.S., while many of those immigrants already here are opting to return to their homeland, resulting in zero net migration from Mexico.
Hispanics and Asian-Americans are the nation's two fastest-growing population groups, each increasing by more than 40 percent since 2000. A higher birth rate and years of steadily high immigration have boosted Hispanics to 17 percent of the U.S. population, compared with blacks at 12 percent and 5 percent for Asians.
About 73 percent of Asian-Americans voted for Obama, second only to African-Americans at 93 percent and slightly higher than Latinos at 71 percent, according to exit polling.