U.S. immigrant population dips in recession
By Tim Gaynor
The foreign born population in the United States dipped slightly last year for the first time in more than a generation, as this nation of immigrants weathered its worst recession in decades, figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau this week indicated.
The Bureau’s American Community Survey showed the total foreign-born population dipped by around 99,000 people to 37.9 million in 2008, as the U.S. sank into its most extended recession since the Great Depression. It was the first recorded decline since 1970.
The Census Bureau cautioned that the dip in the foreign born, to 12.5 percent of the population in 2008 from 12.6 percent in 2007, was well within the margin of error, although analysts found it nevertheless suggestive.
“It’s a modest decline when you’re looking at the overall size of the foreign born population of about 38 million …. but that said, it is the first time that there has been one,” said Michelle Mittelstadt, of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington.
“We believe it’s very much tied to economic conditions in the United States and the fact particularly that immigrant flows to the United States have declined significantly during the downturn, and … illegal immigration flows in particular,” added Mittelstadt, who is the co-author of a report on global migration flows and the recession published this month.
The U.S. foreign born population includes naturalized Americans, refugees and both legal and illegal immigrants, of whom there are some 12 million illegal immigrants living and working in the shadows.
One sign that immigrants have been hurt by the recession are falling remittances to Mexico, which began a decline last year for the first time on record. Cash sent back to Mexico fell 16.2 percent in the year to July to $1.83 billion, down from $2.19 billion a year earlier, according to figures released by Mexico’s Central Bank earlier this month.
Whether or not migrants, legal or otherwise, were returning home in the downturn remained moot.
Mittelstadt said evidence suggested that the foreign born population was not being replenished by fresh immigration, rather than significant numbers of people leaving the United States — although other analysts disagreed.
“Fewer people are coming, and significantly more people are going home,” Steven Camarota of the pro-enforcement Center for Immigration Studies think tank in Washington.
“For these numbers to look as they do, it strongly implies that it’s illegal immigrants who are coming in lower numbers and going home in higher numbers,” he added.
Whatever the cause, the tentative decline in the foreign born population is more likely temporary than structural – with immigration likely to trend upward with the economic recovery, Mittelstadt said.
“We believe … this is cyclical and tied to the economy. Within the next two to five years as you see the economy take off again, you will see immigration increase,” she said.
“If this ends up being a jobless recovery … and if Americans decide to consume less and cutback on spending … this could in turn affect migration patterns.”