The number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. has dropped by nearly 1 million, renewing the debate over what to do with those still in the country, according to a Los Angeles Times report Thursday.
The Department of Homeland Security reported that illegal immigrant population dropped to 10.8 million in 2009 compared to 11.6 million in 2008. It was the second consecutive annual decline and the largest in at least three decades.
"This represents a sharp break from the past, when pretty much the illegal population has continually grown," Steven Camarota, of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think-tank that favors immigration restrictions, told the paper. "It shows illegal immigration is not inexorable."
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According to the report, the downturn in illegal immigration is due in part to the bad economy, in which job opportunities have dried up. Homeland Security department spokesman Matthew Chandler told the paper that the U.S. had also deployed "unprecedented resources" to crack down on illegal immigration.
The report renews a polarizing argument on how to address illegal immigrants' presence in the country.
Those in favor of tougher immigration control say the report offers proof that illegal immigration is linked to job opportunities. Take away the jobs and illegal immigrants will leave the U.S.
"Whether jobs dry up because the government is doing enforcement or because of the recession, illegal aliens react in a rational manner: They either will not come or they'll go home," Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, told the paper. "It certainly shows that illegal immigration is a controllable phenomenon."
But there are still those in favor of legalizing those undocumented immigrants already here.
"Millions of people here are good citizens and workers who pay taxes and own homes," Rev. Richard Estrada of Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Los Angeles, told the paper. "The reality is that they are not going back."
According to the DHS report, 63 percent of the illegal immigrants in the country arrived before 2000.
Among illegal immigrant groups, the Chinese population dropped by the largest percentage - nearly 50 percent. Mexicans, the largest illegal immigrant population, dropped 380,000 to 6.65 million.
Declines occurred in most parts of the country, though it increased in Georgia. Arizona, Florida, New Jersey and New York all saw double-digit drops.
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