The number of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally is at its lowest in more than a decade and, for the first time in years, has probably dropped below 11 million.
A new study by the Center for Migration Studies estimates that 10.9 million immigrants are living in the country without authorization. That is the lowest level since 2003 and the first time the number has dipped below 11 million since 2004.
A steady decline in illegal immigration, which has been documented by previous studies, runs counter to the widespread image on the Republican presidential campaign trail of a rise in illegal border crossers.
GOP front-runner Donald Trump has said illegal immigration rates are “beyond belief” and has claimed immigrants bringing crime and disease are “just pouring across the border.” Trump has pledged mass deportations and a giant border wall, while criticizing as weak his more moderate rivals, such as Jeb Bush, who has proposed giving immigrants already in the country a path to legal status.
According to the report, written by a prominent former government demographics expert, illegal immigration has dropped steadily since 2008, driven in part by a large number of immigrants from Mexico returning home.
Since 2010, the number of Mexicans living in the U.S. illegally declined by about 612,000, or 9 percent, the report found.
The size of California’s unauthorized Mexican immigrant population shrank by about 250,000 between 2010 and 2014, the study found. The state’s overall population of unauthorized immigrants fell by 318,000 to a total of just under 2.6 million during that time.
The declines correspond with the onset of the Great Recession and with an increase in the number of deportations under President Barack Obama, said Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University.
He noted that many immigrants work in parts of the economy, notably construction and hospitality, that suffer disproportionately during economic downturns.
Immigrants “have been exposed to the ups and downs of the American economy in ways that people in other sectors have not been,” he said.
While the report found declines in the number of unauthorized immigrants from South America, the Caribbean and Europe, it reported an increase in the number of immigrants crossing illegally from Central America, an area gripped with poverty and rising violence in recent years.