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They're Still Coming To America

Legal and illegal immigration into the United States so far this decade has kept pace with the surging rates of the 1990s, with nearly one-third of the new immigrants arriving from Mexico, a private analysis released Tuesday said.

More than 3.3 million new immigrants entered the country between January 2000 and March 2002 as the nation's foreign-born population swelled to over 33 million, according to a report from the Center for Immigration Studies, a research group that supports some limits on immigration.

Researchers remain divided over how the souring economy and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks affected immigration. The report's author, Steven Camarota, said his analysis of Census Bureau data showed little evidence of an immigration slowdown.

"There's such a huge queue of people in line on legal immigration, that even if some people dropped out, there's still a tremendous number waiting to get in," Camarota said. Even during a recession, the economy is better in America than in most of the countries from which new immigrants come, he said.

Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, cautioned against using the data as a barometer of any post-Sept. 11 immigration trends since the study stopped at March 2002, just six months after the terrorist attacks.

Typically though, Suro said, there is a short-term response in immigration rates to dramatic events and then "the underlying trend reasserts itself - trends tied to economic factors and family reunification."

Among the findings by Camarota:

  • The number of foreign-born residents increased about 1.1 million a year between 1990 and 2000, to 31.1 million.
  • Adding to that number the 3.3 million new immigrants this decade through March, then subtracting the 1.3 million immigrants who either died or left the country during the same period, gives the number of immigrants as of March 2002 - 33.1 million.
  • That total includes an estimated 8 million to 9 million illegal immigrants, with roughly 1 million to 1.5 million entering during the first two-plus years of this decade.
  • Of all immigrants who arrived since 2000, about 1 million were from Mexico and 88,000 were from the Middle East.

    Some evidence points to small declines in the number of student and employment visas granted to immigrants from Middle Eastern countries since Sept. 11, in large part due to crackdowns after the attacks, said Jim Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute.

    Other potential immigrants may be hesitant to come to the United States amid reports of increasing discrimination against Arab-Americans, Zogby said. The FBI on Monday said Muslims and people who are or appear to be of Middle Eastern descent were reported as victims of hate crimes more often last year than ever before.

    The mission statement for Camarota's group calls for "fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted." According to Camarota, that could be accomplished by better policing the nation's borders and punishing employers who hire illegals, along with maintaining stricter guidelines over who gets visas.

    Angela Kelley, deputy director of the pro-immigrant National Immigration Forum, said problems with the current system existed long before the fallout from Sept. 11. Since security was heightened, U.S. Border Patrol arrests have dropped to their lowest level in more than a decade.

    That may be a sign that immigrants are electing to take a more treacherous route or more drastic measures to enter the country, Kelley said.

    Kelley favors an overhaul of the immigration system to allow more undocumented workers to gain legal status, an issue being discussed this week in Mexico City between Bush administration officials and Mexican President Vicente Fox.

    By Genaro C. Armas

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