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New Report: Legal, Illegal Immigration Flows React Differently to Recession; Return Migration, Though Probably Up, Is Not Yet a Definitive Trend

Press Release
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

New Report: Legal, Illegal Immigration Flows React Differently to Recession; Return Migration, Though Probably Up, Is Not Yet a Definitive Trend

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 immigration flows.

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 job sectors.
  • 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 informal work.
  • 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 here.