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Report: Immigration Reflects U.S. Business Cycle

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Another border story now, this one about immigration patterns. The Pew Hispanic Center has released a new analysis showing a relationship between the flow of immigrants and economic opportunity. The study appears to contradict research by another think tank that favors more restrictions on immigration. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the dueling studies reflect the growing political debate over how to respond to illegal immigration.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

It's the morning routine outside the Home Depot in Seattle's warehouse district: dozens of Hispanic men competing for day labor jobs offered by white guys in pickup trucks.

Unidentified Man #1: You ever drug brush?

Unidentified Man #2: No.

KASTE: Jesus Rios(ph) came to the US from Hidalgo, Mexico, in 2004. When asked why he came, he shrugs. To him, it's obvious.

Mr. JESUS RIOS: (Spanish spoken)

KASTE: `You come because of the needs you have, because in Mexico there isn't enough money,' he says.

It may seem obvious to him, but for think tanks and political activists, it is a matter for debate. Pew Hispanic Center demographer Jeff Passell has parsed out a decade's worth of Census statistics, and he says immigration peaked, along with the economy, in the year 2000. When the economy stalled, he says, there was a big drop in new arrivals, a 24-percent drop by the year 2004.

Mr. JEFF PASSELL (Demographer, Pew Hispanic Center): The link of immigration to the economy really hasn't been broken, particularly for the unauthorized and temporary migrants. There's a strong relationship between the sort of demand in the US and the flows.

KASTE: Again, hardly a surprising conclusion. But Passell says he thinks it's a point worth making, especially after a group called the Center for Immigration Studies came out with a report saying just the opposite. The center, which favors greater controls on immigration, used much of the same data to argue that immigration rises even when the economy does not. Research director Steven Camarota says the Pew Hispanic Center relies too much on hard-to-measure, year-to-year changes in the numbers to try to show brief dips in immigration along with the economy. But he says the broad trend is still upward, good times and bad. The reason, he says, is the huge economic gap between the US and Latin America.

Mr. STEVEN CAMAROTA (Research Director, Center for Immigration Studies): The enormous difference in the standard of living means that people will come even if the United States experiences a rather steep recession. And that fact, coupled with non-enforcement of immigration laws, means we're going to get a lot of people regardless of what the economy does.

KASTE: But why do migrants' reasons even matter? The answer may be politics. There are bills in Congress to increase the number of visas for the very people who are now coming in illegally. The bills would peg the number of visas to the number of jobs available here, essentially welcoming more migrants as long as the economy needs them. Angela Kelly is deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, and she says the Pew Hispanic Center's study is a good argument in favor of this approach.

Ms. ANGELA KELLY (Deputy Director, National Immigration Forum): If we have policies that match up with the economic reality of jobs that are here and who can come and fill them, then that means that we gain control of the system.

KASTE: Ultimately, statistics is a blunt instrument when it comes to discerning people's motives for coming. But the data do make one thing clear: Immigration is rising again, and the past couple of years, illegal immigrants have begun to outnumber the foreigners who move here legally. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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