For the first time in decades, the number of foreign-born individuals living in the United States declined last year, according to new numbers released by the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. The drop was small, from 12.6 percent of the U.S. population to 12.5 percent of the population, but it is significant nonetheless. It suggests that not only are fewer people coming here but also some who are already here have decided to leave. But the reason for the decline may be nothing to cheer about. It may have less to do with tougher border enforcement effectively keeping out illegal immigrants than it does with a shrinking economy making the country a less enticing destination.
Immigrants always have been the canaries in the mine shaft -- an early warning system about the health of the U.S. economy. By mid-decade, informal networks of immigrants in the U.S. had already begun to send word-of-mouth messages back home that job opportunities in the U.S. were drying up. As a result, immigration from Mexico -- the country responsible for about a third of all immigration to the U.S. -- began a steep decline and is now down overall by about 40 percent. And according to estimates from Mexico's National Survey of Employment and Occupation, Mexicans have been returning home at a rate of more than 400,000 a year since 2006, at the very time that fewer Mexicans have been choosing to leave Mexico for the U.S.
But what about those who remain? The greatest passion generated during immigration debates over the past few years has concerned illegal immigration, but many people also have voiced fears that Hispanic immigrants, even those who came legally, are somehow different from all previous immigrants and never will move into the American mainstream. The Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector, for example, warned in one study that the descendants of Mexican immigrants will constitute a permanent underclass, dependent on welfare and unable to carry their fair share of the tax burden, discouraging lawmakers from considering changes to immigration law that would allow more Mexicans to immigrate, even if they were to do so legally.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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