January 14, 2009
Contact: Michelle Mittelstadt
WASHINGTON –With the United States in an economic crisis
that may already be the worst since the Great Depression, a report
issued today by the Migration Policy Institute finds that the
recession may produce differing results for legal and illegal
The report, Immigrants
and the Current Economic Crisis, cites a growing body of
evidence suggesting there has been a measurable slowdown in
the historic growth of immigration in the United States, largely
because there has been no significant growth in the unauthorized
immigrant population since 2006.
“Legal and illegal immigration flows respond differently
in an economic crisis,” said Migration Policy Institute
President Demetrios Papademetriou, an author of the report. “Legal
permanent immigration flows are the least responsive to economic
pressures, while illegal immigration flows are the most responsive.”
“Still, substantial return migration of unauthorized immigrants
is unlikely unless there’s a protracted and severe worsening
of the U.S. economy,” Papademetriou added.
The report examines the effects of the economic crisis and factors
such as immigration enforcement on the immigrant population already
in the United States; predicts how future immigration flows may
be affected; discusses how immigrants fare in the U.S. labor
market during recessions; and offers possible policy prescriptions.
Among the report’s findings:
- While there is anecdotal evidence that return migration to
some countries, including Mexico, appears to have increased
there is no definitive trend so far that can be tied
in a significant way to U.S. economic conditions.
- Suggestions that increasingly strict enforcement of immigration
laws by federal, state and local officials is responsible for
increased return migration appear to be premature. With enforcement
differing from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, selective enforcement
strategies are likely to first divert unauthorized immigrants
to other destinations within the United States where economic
opportunities exist rather than induce them to leave the country.
- Return migration appears to correlate more closely with economic,
political and social developments in countries of origin than
with economic conditions in the United States.
- While immigrants on average share the demographic characteristics
of the workers who are most vulnerable during recessions (including
relative youth, lower levels of education and recent entry
into the labor force), they also may be able to adjust more
quickly than native-born workers to fluctuating labor market
conditions because they are more amenable to moving and changing
- The lack of access to public benefits and family obligations
(such as sending remittances to relatives in the country of
origin) may force immigrant workers to go to extraordinary
lengths to remain employed or find new employment quickly,
possibly pushing some into dangerous working conditions or
- Legal immigration appears least tied to U.S. economic conditions
because most legal immigrants in recent years have been status
adjusters who already live in the United States and tend to
have strong labor market ties; there is a pent-up demand for
employer-sponsored visas; about two-thirds of legal immigrants
are coming to reunite with family on visas that, in many cases,
took years to secure; and refugee and asylee flows are largely
independent of the economic climate.
“Illegal immigration is more responsive to economic downturns
than legal immigration because it is comprised overwhelmingly
of economic migrants whose decisions to migrate are based on
their ability to find work,” said report co-author Aaron
Terrazas, an MPI Research Assistant.
The report offers a number of policy suggestions that could
make the U.S. immigration system more responsive to U.S. labor
market and economic needs, among them the creation of a Standing
Commission on Immigration and Labor Markets that would provide
recommendations to Congress and the administration on adjustments
to admissions levels based on labor market needs, employment
patterns and changing economic and demographic trends.
“While the current economic crisis might not seem the
most opportune moment to fix the chronic disconnect between the
U.S. labor market and immigration system, visionary policymakers
will recognize that a more nimble and thoughtful immigration
system would better serve U.S. economic interests in an ever-more
competitive global marketplace,” Papademetriou said.
The report, the first research product of MPI’s new Labor
Markets Initiative, is available online at: www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/lmi_recessionJan09.pdf
The Migration Policy Institute is an independent, non-partisan,
non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis
of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development
and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local,
national and international levels.