WASHINGTON — North Carolina's illegal immigrant population remained steady last year at about 325,000 people, after taking a slight dip the year before.
As the national recession levels off and economic recovery begins slowly to take hold, illegal immigrant levels remained the same through much of the United States, according to a report released Tuesday by the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington. The national estimate for 2010, 11.2 million, was not statistically different from the 2009 estimate of 11.1 million.
"It seems that the decline has halted as of 2010," said Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center and the report's lead author.
North Carolina remains the ninth most populous state for illegal immigrants, and the state ranks eighth in the number of illegal immigrants in its labor force. They make up about 5.4 percent of the state's work force.
Twenty years ago, the state had relatively few illegal immigrants at 25,000, but the number has grown 1,200 percent since then.
The state's illegal immigrant population peaked at an estimated 375,000 in 2007.
"I don't think the number surprises me ... even in the wake of all this anti-immigrant sentiment that's been going on," said Lacey Williams, the youth civic engagement organizer for the Latin American Coalition advocacy group based in Charlotte. "I think for a lot of folks, especially those who have built families and homes here, they think of the United States as their home. I'm not surprised also that the number hasn't been going up because the economy hasn't been going well."
Passel said the Pew report can't fully explain why immigration numbers have leveled off.
"We point to economic factors in the U.S. economy, to economic factors in the sending countries, to differences among the states," Passel said. "And there also has been greatly increased enforcement activities at the border in the past 20 years and also at the state level."
The Pew report noted that enforcement actions have risen in recent years at both the national and state and local levels.
Deportations have more than doubled nationally over the past decade, at nearly 400,000 in fiscal year 2009. Mecklenburg and Wake counties' sheriff's departments participate in a federal program, known as 287(g), that helps net illegal immigrants.
Since the program started in Wake County in 2008, 3,161 illegal immigrants have been removed. In Mecklenburg County, which started the program in 2006, 7,168 illegal immigrants have been removed.
The number of illegal immigrants remains a flashpoint on immigration issues, though not as intensely as before the recession. Among the debates at state and federal levels are whether to remove birthright citizenship from the U.S. Constitution, whether to prohibit illegal immigrant children from attending public colleges and universities and whether to require all employees be put through the federal E-Verify electronic database to determine their legal status.
In North Carolina, an estimated 250,000 illegal immigrants are in the labor force, according to the Pew study.
"If we had half of those people here illegally and those jobs were freed up, that's 100,000 Americans today that would have a job that don't have one," said Ron Woodard, president of N.C. Listen, a Raleigh-based advocacy group. "That would be a great improvement. We can certainly put a dent in unemployment in a relatively short period of time if we were doing simple things like E-Verify."
U.S. Reps. Heath Shuler, a Waynesville Democrat, and Sue Myrick, a Charlotte Republican, both have signed on as co-sponsors to legislation that would require federal contractors to use E-Verify in hiring workers.
The focus of immigration-related legislation could change with new GOP leadership both in the N.C. General Assembly and in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In Washington, 45 House members have co-sponsored legislation by Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa to remove the birthright citizenship guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. They include Myrick and fellow North Carolina Republican Reps. Virginia Foxx and Walter Jones.
There currently are an estimated 4.5 million children in the United States who were born here - and are therefore citizens - and have at least one parent who is an illegal immigrant, according to Pew. The report did not include a state-by-state breakdown.
A Pew survey taken in October found a near-even split among registered voters, 46 percent to 46 percent, on whether to amend the Constitution to remove birthright citizenship, according to the report. Among Republicans, 67 percent favored amending the Constitution; 48 percent of independents and 30 percent of Democrats favored a change.
Another estimated 1 million children in the United States are foreign-born and therefore unauthorized. They, too, are the subject of pending legislation. A bill in the state House would prohibit undocumented high school graduates from attending any public colleges or universities in North Carolina.
Students in the Charlotte region planned to hold a vigil against the bill Tuesday evening at Uptown's Marshall Park.
"Because it doesn't make any sense. Why would we deprive kids of their future?" Williams asked.
The Pew study is based on data from the federal government's March 2010 Current Population Survey, conducted jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.