From MontereyHerald.com, Claudia Meléndez Salinas, Herald Staff Writer, 2 Aug 2011.
[Monterey, CA] — At at time when illegal immigration has dropped to record low levels, a new report has found that Monterey County has a larger share of undocumented residents than any county in California.
In the first estimate of its kind, researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California determined that about 62,000 undocumented immigrants live in Monterey and San Benito counties — 13.5percent of the population. Only Napa, with 12 percent; Imperial, with 12.8 percent, and on the border with Mexico; have shares above 10percent. Santa Cruz County has 8.2 percent.
Los Angeles County has the largest number of undocumented immigrants with more than 900,000, or 9.3percent of the population.
Given Monterey county’s major industries — agriculture and hospitality — the numbers are not surprising, observers say.
“There’s a rich mix of all the different kinds of industries where unauthorized migrants typically work,” said Laura Hill, co-author of the report.
Employment opportunities are the biggest magnet for immigrant workers, researchers say, and low-paying industries such agriculture and hospitality rely heavily on undocumented labor. Statewide, 75percent of adults without proper immigration permits have a job.
The report, which analyzes data from the American Community Survey and the Internal Revenue Service, was issued on the heels of numerous studies which document a dramatic drop in illegal immigration.
Last year, the Border Patrol arrested 463,382 people trying to cross the border, down from 1.7 million in 2000. The numbers have not been this low since 1972, said the Office of Immigration Statistics in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Reports by Mexican and U.S. think tanks confirm the economic recession and improved economic conditions in Mexico — coupled with a decline in birth rates — have put the brakes on migration to the United States from Mexico — the largest sender of migrants.
Hill said the report was produced to bring facts to a debate that’s usually tinged with emotional overtones, and to help facilitate a discussion that would bring about reasonable solutions to the status of these workers.
“The extreme of the debate is deporting 11 million people. It does not make economic sense, even if you didn’t think unauthorized immigrants contributed to the economy,” she said, referring to nationwide estimates for the undocumented population.
“The other extreme is, ‘Well, we have 11 million, we should leave them all here and immediately legalize them.’ There has to be some compromise in the middle. What the middle is, we’re no experts, but we’re providing the facts so policy makers can decide.”
Estimates vary, but some research shows about 70 percent of agricultural workers in California are here illegally. Monterey County agricultural leaders have lobbied for years in support of legislation that would grant documented status to farm laborers, without success.
Now, a bill sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, would require that all employers in the farm sector use E-Verify, an electronic system to verify immigration status, a move that ag leaders say would be detrimental to their industry.
“If it passes in its present form, it would have a devastating impact on agriculture,” said Jim Bogart, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California. “What we’re trying to do is include as part of the E-Verify bill in the House a viable guest-worker program for agriculture. The E-Verify must address the needs of agriculture for us not to oppose it. It’s got to be fixed.”
In previous years, agricultural leaders supported Ag Jobs, a federal proposal that would have granted legal status to field workers and give them a path to citizenship. That type of bill is no longer viable, Bogart said.
“Ag Jobs is never going to pass in its current form,” he said. “The pathway for citizenship — it’s a deal breaker in Congress. We want something that can pass Congress. Ag Jobs, we put a good fight but it just hasn’t moved.”
With agriculture so dependent on illegal immigration and with a drop in the number of border-crossers, agriculture is already seeing a crunch in available workers, Bogart said.
But contrary to some media reports, immigrants are not going home in droves. The number of immigrants has dropped because fewer have come across from Mexico, but those who are already here are staying put, research by the RAND corporation concluded.
“Experience shows that economic troubles slow migration in both directions across a border,” said Michael Rendall, associate director for RAND Labor and Population. “The Mexican immigrants who are in the United States have not been returning to Mexico in larger-than-usual numbers, but inflow into the United States has fallen sharply.”
Claudia Meléndez Salinas can be reached at 753-6755 or firstname.lastname@example.org.