SALT LAKE CITY — The flow of illegal immigrants to Utah has slowed so much that it may even have reversed direction — with more of them now returning to their home countries amid the recession than are coming here, according to a study released Wednesday by the Pew Hispanic Center.
In fact, the study estimated that the number of illegal immigrants living in Utah did drop by 10,000 people, or 8 percent, between 2008 and 2009 — from 120,000 overall to 110,000. However, study authors cautioned that those numbers are within statistical margins of error, so it is possible that no decrease occurred.
"But it shows that the in-flows are down for sure, and that there may be some return migration," said Pam Perlich, a research economist at the University of Utah.
That news comes, of course, as conservative Utah legislators are pushing a tough new immigration enforcement law — similar to a controversial Arizona law — seeking to help stop illegal immigration. The new data show that process may already have begun.
"But just because we had a little decrease doesn't mean we still don't have a problem," said Rep. Steve Sandstrom, R-Orem, who is sponsoring the immigration-enforcement bill, and said he still intends to do so.
"That data is about a year old. … I think we have actually had an increase since then, and will have more because of the Arizona law" that may push many illegal immigrants to leave that state for Utah, Sandstrom said. "The economy will also come back, and bring more illegal immigration with it. So we need to have an enforcement law in place to handle that."
Jeffrey Passel, author of the report, said immigration flows are down nationally and have reversed for the first time in two decades. He said that is probably because the recession destroyed jobs for many immigrants, and also because border enforcement has been beefed up in recent years.
"We have seen in the past that flows have varied with the state of the U.S. economy, and we know that it harder and more dangerous for undocumented immigrants to sneak into the country," he said.
But Perlich said she believes the biggest reason for slower flows in Utah is the recession — and that increasingly tougher immigration enforcement may have the unintended consequence of making many illegal immigrants stay.
"Paradoxically, a numbers of studies show that when people believe they won't be able to get back here, they won't go home — and hunker down here," Perlich said.
The new Pew study said the combined three-state area of Utah, Arizona and Colorado had a statistically significant decline in their combined illegal-immigrant population between 2008 and 2009, estimated at a combined reduction of 130,000 people.
It stated, however, that differences in each of those states individually were within statistical margins of error. But it estimated that illegal immigrants made up 3.9 percent of Utah's population in 2009, down from 4.0 percent the previous year.
It estimates that illegal immigrants made up 4.9 percent of Utah's workforce in 2009, down from 5.8 percent a year earlier. It estimates about 70,000 illegal immigrants are in Utah's workforce.
Nationwide, the report estimated the number of illegal immigrants declined from 12 million in 2007 to 11.1 million in 2009, an 8 percent drop in those two years.
It also said most of those who appear to be returning home are from Latin American countries other than Mexico. It said that from 2007 to 2009 the population of illegal immigrants from the Caribbean, Central America and South America decreased by 22 percent.
"We've seen the same here in Utah," Perlich said. "Mexicans are tending to stay put. They have multigeneral support here to help them make it through the recession. But people from Central and South America often don't, so they are returning home in greater numbers."
Perlich said illegal immigrants from Asia and Africa also tend to stay put because of the high cost of transportation back to their home countries.
The study said that in 2009 about 60 percent of the nation's illegal immigrants came from Mexico, or 6.7 million people. Other Latin American countries accounted for 20 percent, or 2.2 million people. Asia accounted for 11 percent, or 1.2 million people.
The report also says 5.1 million children lived in households nationally in 2009 where at least one parent is an illegal immigrant. Of those children, 4 million were born in the United States and therefore are U.S. citizens. The other 1.1 million were born abroad and are also illegal immigrants.
The population of children with illegal-immigrant parents was 42 percent larger in 2009 than it was in 2000.
The Pew study made its estimates by subtracting the number of citizens and legal immigrants from the overall foreign-born U.S. population estimated annually by the U.S. Census. It assumes the residual are illegal immigrants.
The study is available online at pewhispanic.org.