By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are his own.
Americans now appear ready for a new approach to immigration policy. A CBS News survey last month found that three-quarters of the public favors “a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the U.S. if they met certain requirements including a waiting period, paying fines and back taxes, passing criminal background checks, and learning English.”
But even as the debate intensified the past week as hundreds of conservative leaders converged on Washington to press for broad immigration reform, the issue looks like it might be about to take another twist as the sharp decline in the U.S. population of unauthorized immigrants that accompanied the 2007-2009 recession bottoms out. Indeed, the number may be rising again.
As of March 2012, 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants were living in the United States, according to a preliminary Pew Research Center estimate based on U.S. government data. The estimated number of unauthorized immigrants had peaked at 12.2 million in 2007 and then fell to 11.3 million in 2009, breaking a rising trend that had held for decades. Now this trend may be reversing itself.
The findings come as a new report by the Pew Research Center shows that two-in-ten Mexicans and nearly three-in-ten Salvadorans say they would move to the United States even without authorization if they had the means and the opportunity to do so.
Certainly, there is substantial interest in Mexico and El Salvador – both major sources of immigrants, authorized and unauthorized – in coming to live in the United States. There are about 11.4 million Mexican immigrants and approximately 1.2 million Salvadoran immigrants already in the country.
Why? Publics in both Latin American nations believe that people who leave their country for the U.S. lead a better life there, with Salvadorans having an even more positive picture of emigrating than do Mexicans. Nearly two-thirds of Salvadorans see life as rosier north of the Rio Grande, as do a 47 percent plurality of Mexicans.
Salvadorans are much more likely than Mexicans to have acquaintances who have moved to the United States. And among those who have friends or family there, at least seven-in-ten in both Latin American countries say those they know who have gone north have achieved their goals.
It is perhaps because of this positive image of their experience that many Salvadorans and Mexicans would like to move to the U.S. themselves. Nearly six-in-ten Salvadorans say they would migrate if they had the wherewithal to do so, including just over a quarter who said they would move without authorization. Men and younger people are more likely to want to make the move and to say they would do so without authorization.
About a third of Mexicans would go north if possible, including on-in-five who would do so without authorization. And the recent U.S. crackdown on unauthorized immigrants and the slow U.S. economic recovery from the Great Recession does not seem to be diminishing the desire to brave the trip across the border. Almost half of Salvadorans and a quarter of Mexicans know someone who has been deported or detained by U.S. authorities, while significant minorities also say they personally know someone who recently returned from the U.S. because they could not find work (35 percent in El Salvador and 30 percent in Mexico).
All this suggests that if Congress chooses to tackle immigration reform before it goes home for the year, it will do so against a backdrop of support for such change by the American public, a strong desire in countries such as Mexico and El Salvador to come to the United States, even without proper papers, and some evidence that the number of such unauthorized immigrants is already rising again.