The bad economy and stepped-up federal immigration audits have dramatically slowed the influx of illegal immigrants, experts say.
Demographers, government officials and business leaders say illegal immigrants not only are returning to their homelands in response to more intense government scrutiny, they're also staying there.
And as word spreads that jobs are harder to come by in the United States because of the recession, others are deciding not to come in the first place, slowing an unprecedented flood of immigrants that's lasted more than a decade.
U.S. employers, meanwhile, are hiring fewer undocumented immigrants because they have a bigger pool of unemployed legal workers to choose from and because they fear tighter immigration laws, immigrants and experts say.
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"When you start taking away the work force by cracking down on illegal immigration, it scares the bejesus out of employers," said Mark Reed, a former immigration official who once oversaw such measures. "Their mentality changes."
In the San Joaquin Valley, the effect is most noticeable on the west side, where water shortages have aggravated the effects of recession and increased immigration enforcement.
Joseph Riofrio, a Mendota City Council member, said hard times have forced some of the fieldworkers who frequent his small grocery store to return to Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and other Latin American countries.
"They say they can eat frijoles y nopales (beans and cactus) here," Riofrio said, "or they can eat them at home in Mexico rather than put up with what's happening here."
Manuel Cunha Jr., president of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, said many farmworkers have left to seek work in other farming areas where more water is available, such as the Salinas Valley and Imperial Valley.
But others have simply returned to Mexico, he said.
"I've talked to a lot of folks in the fields who said their friends have gone back home because there's no more work here," Cunha said. "Even in the last two months, there are guys who were thinning fruit on the trees who by now have gone back to Mexico."
12M illegal entrants remain
The estimated 12 million immigrants believed to be living in the country illegally have by no means disappeared from the ranks of the U.S. work force. In the past decade, the population skyrocketed 40 percent.
However, the dramatic year-after-year increases in the population have stalled. The Pew Hispanic Center, which regularly estimates undocumented immigrants in the United States, concluded in its most recent report that the growth in their population began slowing in 2006, a full year before the recession hit.
Roughly 300,000 fewer immigrants came to the country each year from 2005 through 2008, an annual drop of almost 40 percent, according to the center.
As the recession deepened in 2009 and into 2010, the numbers likely continued to decline, said Jeff Passel, a senior demographer with the center, which is preparing an update of its report.
The shift comes at a time when the Obama administration is trying to demonstrate that it is tough on illegal immigration while reassuring the president's political base that he'll eventually pursue a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
States getting involved
Further polarizing the issue, state and local lawmakers, who once left immigration enforcement to the federal government, have stepped in. In 2009, states enacted 222 immigration laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In the latest anti-immigration effort, Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed a law April 23 that requires police to demand documentation of anyone they suspect might be an illegal immigrant — a measure critics say encourages racial profiling. President Barack Obama has criticized the law and ordered the Justice Department to review it.
Under federal law, employers are required only to ask for proof of immigration status, not verify that the IDs are real. However, they can be fined or even prosecuted if the federal government can prove they "knowingly" hired undocumented workers.
For years, the federal government did little to go after employers who did.
Then, at the end of the Bush administration, the Department of Homeland Security stepped up work site raids after President George W. Bush failed to get immigration overhaul legislation through Congress. Agents zeroed in on industries such as meatpacking that had come to depend on the undocumented work force.
While the Obama administration has scaled back those raids, it has stepped up scrutiny of companies' immigration paperwork. In 2009, Immigration and Customs Enforcement audited 1,444 companies, more than double the number the year before. This year, ICE has audited more than 1,180.
The number of employers fined for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants has risen dramatically as well. In 2006, no employer was fined. In 2008, ICE fined 18 employers, amounting to about $675,000 in fines. In the first five months of this fiscal year, ICE has fined 63 employers and issued almost $1.9 million in fines.
James Spero, a deputy assistant director for ICE, said agents are focusing on employers rather than the illegal workers.
"It's a pivot," he said. "The goal is to build a case against the employer. We feel that's the most effective use of our resources to reduce the magnet or pull of illegal employment."
Audits are more effective than the raids, said Reed, the former immigration official whose Arizona company now helps companies comply with immigration law.
With raids, the workers flee and the employers simply replace them with other illegal workers, he said. But with audits, the employer knows the government will check back to see if illegal workers are still employed and will fine them if that's the case.
"One agent can take on 100 employers," he said, whereas raids require dozens of agents.
Feds plan to audit farms
Employers appear to have taken note of raids and audits, even in industries once notorious for attracting undocumented workers.
Such scrutiny has shaken the farming industry, which traditionally relies on seasonal migrant workers. The industry estimates that more than 75 percent of the work force is undocumented.
Not wanting to stir backlash from agricultural states, the federal government often looked the other way.
This year, ICE began sending audit notices to farms and nurseries throughout California, a development experts called unprecedented.
Besides making it more difficult for would-be farm laborers to get across the border in the first place, sweeps of employers by ICE officials to check workers' documents can cripple a farmer's harvest.
Cunha, of the Nisei Farmers League, said he met earlier this year with ICE officials and came away with the understanding that agents may conduct 150 to 280 audits this year at businesses throughout California, including San Joaquin Valley farms, food processing plants and fruit packinghouses.
"These audits are devastating for agriculture," he said. "If you shut my farm down for 24 hours and it's 105 degrees, it's over for harvesting my crop. It's too late."
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a pro- immigration enforcement policy organization, said the immigration slowdown proves that crackdowns work and should continue.
"Right now, it's a system where the worker pretends to have real immigration documents and the employer pretends to believe them," Krikorian said.
However, Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, an employer lobbying group, said one trend contributing to illegal immigration hasn't changed. Americans are much more educated than they were 50 years ago and are much less willing to do unskilled physical work.
Economic prosperity, she asserts, is fueled by the flow of laborers who are willing to fill those jobs.
"When the economy booms again, and when people start to go out to eat, and travel, and build houses, we're going to need an immigrant work force," Jacoby said.