Illegal immigration into Arizona leveling off

PHOENIX -- The percentage of Arizonans who are in this country illegally appears to be leveling off.

And that's even before the state's employer sanctions law really took effect.

New figures Tuesday from the Pew Hispanic Center estimates there were about 500,000 Arizona residents in March 2008 who entered the country illegally. The organization, acknowledging no one actually asks Arizonans their legal status, said the actual number could be anywhere from 475,000 to 550,000.

By comparison, a similar study by the organization in 2005 pegged the state's "unauthorized' population at about 450,000.

But Pew figured the number of illegal immigrants in Arizona at the beginning of the decade at just 300,000. And a decade before that the figure was about 90,000.

Overall, the new figures put Arizona's illegal immigrant population at about 7.9 percent of the total number of people living here.

The report comes on the heels of President Obama saying he intends to make a major push this year for immigration reform.

That includes creating a path to legal status, whether citizenship or legal residency, for the 500,000 illegal immigrants in Arizona and the estimated 12 million nationwide.

And it comes as Obama, along with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano are headed to Mexico on Thursday to meet with President Felipe Calderon to discuss border issues - including illegal immigration.

While the overall number of those not here legally appears to be leveling off, the effect of illegal immigration on schools is not.

Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer for Pew Hispanic, reports that there actually has been a slight decline since 2003 in the number of those 17 and younger who themselves entered the country illegally.

At the same time, though, there has been a sharp increase in the number of U.S.-born children with at least one parent here illegally, from 2.7 million in 2003 to about 4 million last year.

These are children who otherwise would not be in this country -- or in public schools -- except for a parent's decision to cross the border illegally.

Passel estimated there are from 60,000 to 65,000 youngsters in Arizona schools who are not legal residents, up by between 5,000 and 10,000 from when he did a similar computation in 2005.

Schools are legally prohibited from inquiring into a youngster's legal status.

On top of that, Passel figured at least 100,000 students are from families where at least one parent is an illegal immigrant. That is up 20,000 from three years earlier.

Overall, he said, that makes about one out of seven of the 1.2 million youngsters in Arizona schools there directly or indirectly due to illegal immigration.

The new report also estimates that close to 10 percent of Arizona's workforce is undocumented -- or at least it was as of March 2008.

Passel said the timing of his study means he cannot now determine what effect, if any, Arizona's "employer sanctions' law has had.

The law which went on the books at the beginning of 2008 allows a judge to suspend any state business licenses of any firm found guilty of knowingly hiring an undocumented worker. A second offense within three years puts the company out of business.

But county attorneys agreed not to prosecute any cases in the first three months of last year while the law was being challenged.

A federal appeals court has since upheld the measure's legality.

To date, though, no firms have been charged.

Other findings of the Pew study on a national level include:

• The median income of households of illegal immigrants was $37,000 a year, compared to $50,000 for U.S.-born residents.

• Among working-age adults, 47 percent of those not here legally lack a high school education, compared to 8 percent of the rest of the population.

• At the other extreme, close to half of illegal immigrants age 18 through 24 are in college or have graduated, versus 71 percent for native born.

• About 30 percent of illegal immigrants are employed in service industries, compared to 16 percent of those born in this country.

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