The number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. dropped by roughly 1 million last year, according to a new report released by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) yesterday. As of January 2009, the number of unauthorized immigrants currently residing in the U.S. totaled 10.8 million, down from 11.6 million in January 2008, marking the second consecutive year of decline. As numerous reports have noted, not since 2005 has the number of unauthorized immigrants been so low.

This decline seems to provide further support for the historic connection between illegal immigration and the economy—when there are no jobs, illegal immigration declines overall. The DHS report itself suggests the dip in unauthorized immigrants “coincides with the U.S. economic downturn”—as does the independent Migration Policy Institute. Some researchers suggest the drop in unauthorized immigrants, a group notoriously hard to measure, may be no drop at all, but instead reflect improved DHS methods for estimating this population. According to demographer Jeffrey Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center:

It’s very clear the undocumented population basically stopped growing after 2006. It’s plausible that the numbers have gotten smaller. But the way that they’re measuring it, if you compare this estimate with the one two years ago, it overstates the degree of decline.

Regardless of the reason, one thing is clear: the smaller the illegal population, the easier it is to move forward with comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). In other words, we should strike while the iron is hot. Why? Consider the following:

  • Although 10.8 million people is still mind-boggling, this smaller number reduces the pressure on the government, non-profit agencies, and the private bar to implement a workable legalization program.
  • As long as the recession continues, we can expect the overall number to remain low, thereby reducing pressure on enforcement during the legalization period. As former Wall Street Journal publisher and Dow Jones VP, L. Gordon Crovitz, points out in an editorial:“An economic downturn is the right time to move on immigration, one of the few policy tools that could clearly boost growth. The pace of lower-skilled migration has slowed due to higher unemployment. This could make it less contentious to ease the path to legalization for the 12 million undocumented workers and their families in the U.S. … Fewer workers will be lured to the U.S. during a recession, but the ones who come will speed recovery.”
  • Unlike 2006 and 2007, no one is clamoring for a massive temporary worker program. While employers continue to want the flexibility of increased temporary worker numbers in the future, the pressure to pass dramatic increases immediately simply isn’t there in the same way that it was during prior CIR debates. Moreover, the growing consensus among workers that immigration reform is good for labor allows for a discussion of reforming existing programs without the additional pressure of a massive influx of new temporary workers That’s not to say that resolving differences between business and labor is easy—but there are openings for creating a new and improved system for future immigration needs without people pouring in illegally at the very time we are trying to solve the problem.
  • Immigration restrictionists who insist that the downturn is due to enhanced enforcement efforts are setting themselves up for defeat. We repeatedly heard during the 2007 debate that opponents of immigration reform didn’t actually oppose legalization, et. al.—they simply wanted to see enforcement strategies working first. So, if they want to claim that the numbers are down because of enforcement then they really have no argument left for opposing reform. In other words, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

Just today, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi reiterated her support for moving comprehensive immigration reform this year in an interview with La Opinión. Her compassion and commitment are laudable and deserve our respect. But this issue won’t be won solely because it is the right thing to do. Instead, comprehensive immigration reform will make it to the floor of the House and the Senate when compassion and hard-nosed politics meet. The release of new DHS numbers yesterday offers yet more evidence that the time is coming very soon when the right policy and the right politics will be the same thing.

For a further breakdown of DHS’s report numbers, take a look at this CNN article.

Photo by gfpeck.