Immigrants Flee Arizona, Faith Groups and Lawyers Descend

This Thursday will mark day one of implementation of Arizona's harsh new law that makes it a state crime to be in the state illegally. Not surprisingly, immigrants are fleeing the state, with reports of shops in heavily Latino areas being shuttered, immigrants purchasing large duffel bags for hasty departures, Latino children leaving schools and apartment buildings quickly being vacated.

Certainly SB 1070, which was signed into law in April, is prompting what may be, once the dust has settled, a dramatic and noticeable exodus from what has been one of the nation's fastest-growing states. (Meanwhile, faith groups—and of course lawyers, arguing the Department of Justice's case against Arizona—are descending on the state.)

Once an accounting is made, the new law will unlikely be able to claim all the credit for lowering the numbers of illegal immigrants in the state—or beyond. Certainly, increased border enforcement has played a role. The Department of Homeland Security has compiled ample statistics on how many resources it has deployed to the border in recent years and DHS representatives tell NEWSWEEK that Customs and Border Patrol has seen a 23 percent decrease in apprehensions along the border in fiscal year 2009.

But there is another significant reason for the lower number of illegal immigrants in the U.S.: Wall Street. America's financial meltdown has simply made the country less attractive to undocumented workers (and highly skilled workers as well). Why risk a border crossing when there is no guarantee of a job?

In February the DHS released data showing that the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States dropped to 10.6 million in 2009 from 11.6 million in 2008. That drop marks the sharpest decrease in 30 years and a second-straight year of decline. (The only small rise in illegal immigrants that year was found—not in Arizona—but in Georgia, according to news reports). Those years also marks the downturn in the economy.

Whatever the reason, data show that for the past few years illegal immigrants actually have not been coming in hordes to the U.S.

According to a Pew Hispanic Center report:

"… [A]pprehensions of Mexicans attempting to cross illegally into the United States decreased by a third between 2006 and 2008.

Immigration flows from Mexico, like those from other countries, surged in the late 1990s.

Immigration flows dropped by 2002 before beginning to grow again in 2004. But the slowdown in immigration after 2006 was such that by 2008, flows were down at least 40% from mid-decade. The change was driven largely by unauthorized immigrants; flows of legal permanent residents have been steady this decade."

While it's impossible to say for certain what is causing the decline—and although the number of illegal immigrants coming to the U.S. has been decreasing since 2005, long before the economic crisis—the Pew Hispanic Center nonetheless argues that the recession has had "a harsh impact on employment of Latino immigrants" and cites rising unemployment statistics for undocumented workers. Bottom line: Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer might just want to keep that in mind if and when she holds a presser praising the new law for clearing Arizona of illegal immigrants.