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Undocumented immigrants' numbers swell to almost 11 million

WASHINGTON—The U.S. population of undocumented immigrants has reached an all-time high of nearly 11 million and is shifting away from states traditionally favored by illegal entrants to many new ones, according to a report released Monday.

The influx of illegal entrants—plus a small number of asylum-seekers and temporarily permitted visitors—totaled about 485,000 a year between 2000 and 2004, according to an analysis of U.S. government figures by the Pew Hispanic Center, a private research group based in Washington.

Undocumented Mexicans made up 57 percent of all illegal entrants, according to the study. Another 24 percent come from other Latin American countries, Pew's study found. Asians (about 9 percent) were the third largest group.

The new entrants fanned out to more U.S. destinations. While California, New York, Texas, Illinois, Florida and New Jersey took in nearly 9 out of 10 illegal entrants in 1990, they now take in only about 60 percent.

The top state remains California (25 percent), followed by Texas (14 percent), Florida (9 percent), New York (7 percent), Arizona (5 percent), Illinois (4 percent), New Jersey (4 percent) and North Carolina (3 percent).

Arizona and North Carolina are the fastest-growing states for illegal entrants, the study found. Both are also among the country's fastest-growing states overall. That translates into lots of jobs for illegal immigrants in construction, manufacturing and the service industries.

Jeffrey Passel, the report's author, attributed much of the illegal growth to the Immigration Act of 1990, which restricted immigration by putting ceilings on the admission of spouses, minor children and parents of citizens. It also put a ceiling of 10,000 a year on admissions of unskilled workers.

"People are coming who want to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the U.S. but who either don't fit into a category or don't want to wait" to qualify for a visa, Passel said.

The 1990 restrictions made legal Mexican immigration harder—only 305,000 Mexican immigrants have entered the United States legally since then—and made illegal immigration more attractive. More than 80 percent of new Mexican entrants into the United States now come in illegally, Passel estimates.

The study counted undocumented migrants by subtracting legal foreign-born residents from the total foreign-born population, using U.S. Census, Immigration and Naturalization Service and other government figures. It adjusted for deaths, undercounts and misrepresented places of birth.

The 11 million estimate as of March 2005 is a projection. When Passel stopped counting in March 2004, the number was 10.3 million.

Finding U.S. jobs isn't hard, according to Passel.

"There's somewhat of a consensus that maybe half to two-thirds are working at jobs that actually require documentation, but they are able to provide enough documentation to get the job," he said.

"Employers are either willing to look the other way or the workers are able to provide fraudulent documents that are good enough."

While illegal workers are cheap hires, they're costly in government services, according to Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. As evidence, she sent the Justice Department a $71 million bill last month to cover the cost of housing illegal aliens in the state prison system.

President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox are expected to take up border migration issues when they meet Wednesday at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Bush has proposed—and Napolitano endorsed—a guest-worker program that would allow migrants with U.S. jobs to remain in the United States while working.

Fox, who entered office in 2000 pledging to solve Mexico's illegal immigration problems, told U.S. reporters in Mexico City last week that Bush can fix things if he wants to.

"It's up to him and the U.S. Congress to lead us into orderly, legal migration, which is beneficial to all," Fox said.

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To read the Pew report, go to: http://www.pewhispanic.org.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Susana Hayward in Mexico City contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050321 IMMIGRANTS

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