The Census Bureau estimates the number of illegal immigrants in the United States has doubled during the past decade and now surpasses seven million. Before the September 11 terrorist attack, U.S. lawmakers were debating the idea of an amnesty for some, now the government is implementing tighter controls.
Immigration experts say most of the undocumented workers hail from Mexico and points farther south. The U.S. boom economy has been a magnet for those fleeing poverty at home.
For immigration analyst Deborah Myers of the Migration Policy Institute, the numbers are not surprising. "These are people already here," she said. "It was not that there were a large number of new people. This had been a steady increase over time."
Earlier in the year, Mexican and U.S. officials had started working on proposals for an amnesty for Mexican workers living illegally in the United States. Immigration experts like Miss Myers advocated extending the amnesty option to undocumented workers from other countries.
But, the September 11 terrorist attacks and increased anti-terrorism measures have put into question the future of those proposals.
Paul Virtue is a former counselor of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. According to him, congressional action on the amnesty plan will move down the list of priorities. "What has been placed on the back burner are the proposals to regularize the status of people who are here unlawfully," he said. "And, what is on the front burner right now is to increase security and prevent illegal entry."
New anti-terrorism laws have put the INS in the mix of efforts to help track terrorist suspects. But Mr. Virtue notes that even before the added responsibilities, INS resources were stretched to the limit. "The INS has about 2,000 agents throughout the United States to police illegal immigration, and they have quite a few responsibilities on their plate, including identifying and arresting and preparing for removal people non-nationals who commit crimes in the United States," he said. "They are also responsible for anti-fraud measures. They are also responsible for countering smuggling of aliens into the United States and operations and for the enforcement of sanctions against employers who hire people unlawfully."
Mr. Virtue suggests that most undocumented Latin Americans are violating U-S administrative laws by their irregular status, but probably do not pose a more serious security threat.
Still immigration workers say illegal aliens have lowered their public profiles even more after the September 11 attacks. Many families of undocumented workers killed in the World Trade Center attack even hesitated to notify the authorities because of fears of deportation.
According to immigration expert Deborah Myers, tracking long-term illegal aliens is now less of a priority for the INS. A bigger threat for undocumented works is the economic downturn that has worsened after the terrorist attacks. "Most undocumented [immigrants] work in service industry jobs and those jobs are being eliminated at a very quick rate," she said. "The challenge for the undocumented here will be whether to stay and wait it out or whether to go home."
But, Miss Myers adds the problem for those who decide to go home will be trying to get back into the United States. As part of its anti-terrorism campaign, the government has tightened security controls at all U.S. ports of entry, especially the land borders with Mexico and Canada.