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Illegal immigration down - because of economy or border control?

New data show the illegal immigrant population in the US plunged between 2008 and 2009. The report has sparked a debate about the reasons behind the decline and what it means for reform.

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A report that America’s illegal immigrant population declined by almost 1 million in one year is fomenting hot debate about why it is happening, whether the statistics are correct, and how the numbers should affect US immigration reform.

The number of illegal immigrants living in the United States dropped to 10.6 million in 2009 from 11.6 million in 2008, the sharpest decrease in 30 years and a second straight year of decline, according to a Department of Homeland Security report released this week.

Some immigration-control groups say the decline is happening primarily because of a buildup of border patrol and surveillance – and that the buildup should thus continue to further reduce illegal immigration. Other groups claim it is a result of the poor economy. Some say it is both, and still others doubt the statistics altogether.

“I think it’s all about the economy. There is no evidence that we are ‘controlling’ illegal immigration better than in the past,” says Tomás Jiménez, assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. “In fact, the success rate of those attempting to cross illegally hasn’t changed at all. If anything is ‘controlling’ illegal immigration, it’s the economy, and we aren’t exactly in control of that.”

Groups that want to restrict immigration are concerned that immigrant-rights groups will use the new report to argue that it’s now OK to legalize illegal immigrants who remain in the US or to allow their numbers to shrink through attrition.

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