WASHINGTON — A report today indicating a marked decline in the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. fueled a widening national debate over the Bush administration’s policy of immigration enforcement through aggressive work-site raids.
The raids, which have grown in intensity, led to the largest such enforcement action in May in Postville, Iowa, where federal immigration agents descended on a meatpacking plant and arrested nearly 400 workers who later were detained in a building used to house cattle.
The administration began forcefully executing workplace laws after Congress last year failed to pass an immigration overhaul. In the months since, thousands of workers have been arrested in scores of raids. Conservatives applauded the tactics, while critics pointed to mistaken arrests of U.S. citizens, deaths of immigrants in detention and the limited scrutiny of managers who recruited and hired them.
However, evidence that the tactics may have succeeded in reducing the number of illegal immigrants was presented in a report today by a group that favors tighter curbs on all forms of immigration.
The study, by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think tank, said the number of illegal immigrants fell an estimated 11 percent between last August and May, from 12.5 million to 11.2 million.
The study was based on an analysis of Census data and concludes that if that rate of decline is sustained, the number of illegal immigrants would be halved in five years.
Steven Camarota, the Center’s research director, acknowledged that the economy is a factor in the decline, but said several factors pointed to enforcement as a major factor. For instance, the legal immigrant population continues to grow, while the fall-off in illegal immigrants began even before their unemployment numbers began rising.
“It seems that increased enforcement has played a significant role,” said Camarota.
Camarota also said the data suggest that many illegal immigrants are leaving of their own accord. The number of illegal immigrants leaving the country is much larger than the number removed by the government, the report says.
“It challenges the idea that there is no way to deal with the problem but for creating some kind of legal status (for illegal immigrants),” he said. “And it seems you don’t have to deport everyone.”
Independent demographers said they also see a drop in the illegal immigrant population. But some questioned the study’s methodology, the size of the decline it identified and underlying assumptions.
“Our data aren’t inconsistent with the idea that people are leaving,” said Jeffrey Passel, demographer with the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. But Passel added: “I don’t see in my numbers anywhere near the decline he’s talking about.”
Pew expects to issue its own report later this month.
The immigration report was issued as Hispanic lawmakers gathered to condemn the administration’s enforcement drive and announced plans to put a stop to the raids.
“The president knows that we resolve nothing by taking these kinds of punitive actions,” Gutierrez said. “He says he wants comprehensive reform, yet all he does is enforcement with no steps to legalize the status of those workers.”
The lawmakers said workers at the Postville meatpacking plant endured child labor abuses, sexual intimidation and safety violations. Homeland Security officials compounded that abuse with heavy-handed methods, they charged.
“I’m going to be talking to my colleagues to put an end — an end — to these raids,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., “America is better, greater than these conditions which we have created in Postville.”
He said immigration reforms must include a way for illegal immigrants to legally remain in the country. However, he offered no further details on how lawmakers would stop the raids.
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, conservative lawmakers praised the value of immigrant “attrition through enforcement,” and held up Wednesday’s study as proof.
“Enforcement works,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration issues.
Immigrant advocates dismissed the CIS report.
“There is nothing humane nor practical about creating a state of terror in immigrant communities aimed at driving millions of humble, hardworking people from our midst,” said Frank Sharry, director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigrant group.
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who visited Postville last week decried working conditions at the plant and the absence of federal action against plant managers and owners. Two lower-level managers have faced charges, Gutierrez said.
Homeland Security officials have defended the raid and its aftermath. But Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., head of the Hispanic caucus, pointed to charges that the workers did not have proper access to lawyers and were pushed into guilty pleas.