Arizona's Undocumented Immigrant Population Inches Up While Nation's Holds Steady

The number of undocumented immigrants living in Arizona has slightly increased over the past few years, while the number nationwide has remained relatively the same, according to a new Pew Research Center study.

In 2014, the year for which the most recent numbers are available, there were 325,000 undocumented immigrants living in Arizona, up from 300,000 in 2012. Nationally, the undocumented immigrant population was 11.1 million, almost the same as in 2014, when there were 11.2 million.

James Garcia, a spokesman for the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, says the increase in Arizona is due in part to the state's improving economy. More businesses are opening or moving to Arizona, Garcia says, which creates employment opportunities for everyone — even undocumented workers.

He points to the construction industry, which is recovering from the recession, as an example.

"While the construction-company owners don't like to necessarily talk about it, we know that undocumented construction workers are starting to come back," Garcia says.

Another factor is a shift in public opinion in Arizona. In 2010, a poll by Arizona State University's Morrison Institute and Knowledge Networks found that 64 percent of Arizona voters supported three of SB 1070's most controversial measures, including requiring police to question anyone they suspect is in the U.S. unlawfully.

"Interestingly, now, about the same percentage say that they support a path to legalization or citizenship for undocumented immigrants," Garcia says.

A recent survey by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute found that 60 percent of people in Arizona support allowing undocumented immigrants to become U.S. citizens if they meet certain requirements. Another 15 percent say they support a path to legalization, but not citizenship, for undocumented immigrants. And 19 percent said undocumented immigrants should be identified and deported.

Garcia attributes the shift to the work of grassroots organizations that galvanized after the passage of SB 1070. They've been successful, he says, in preventing more anti-immigrant bills from passing in the Arizona Legislature.

He also attributes change in attitude to the pushback SB 1070-like bills received from business leaders, who "understand the consequences of bringing that kind of ugliness back to our state," he says.

Part of the message undocumented immigrants are now getting, adds Garcia, is that "the state is not as anti-immigrant as it was in 2010." As a result, some who left after the passage of SB 1070 are beginning to come back.

Lydia Guzman, a prominent immigration activist, agrees. She says she knows of several undocumented families who left Arizona in 2010 because they feared they'd be arrested and deported under SB 1070 and are now back.

"Back then, everyone was saying, 'The sky is going to fall,'" says Guzman. "The sky didn't fall and Phoenix didn't implode, so now they were like, 'Okay, I guess the coast is clear.'"

According to the Pew Research Center survey, Arizona's undocumented-immigrant population peaked at 500,000 in 2007, then began to decline at the onset of the recession in 2008.

Across the nation, the number of undocumented immigrants peaked at 12.2 million in 2007. As that number declined, so did the the number of Mexican undocumented immigrants: from 6.9 million in 2007 to 5.8 million in 2014. At the same time, the number of undocumented immigrants from other regions – including Asia and Central America – increased.

Mexicans continue to make up the largest share of the undocumented immigrant population in the United States, at 52 percent. Arizona also remains one of the top states where Mexicans make up the largest share of undocumented residents (81 percent).

The Pew Research study comes at a time when immigration is a hot-button issue in the presidential race.

Hillary Clinton supports giving relief to undocumented immigrants who've been living in the U.S. for a long time. According to the Pew study, 66 percent of undocumented immigrants have been living in the U.S. for 10 years or more, up from 41 percent in 2005.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, wants to build "an impenetrable physical wall" along the U.S. border with Mexico. He also wants to deport all undocumented immigrants, then allow only those with longstanding ties to the U.S. and no criminal record to return lawfully.

Guzman says the Pew Research Center's findings regarding the stability of the undocumented-immigrant population debunk Trump's contention that undocumented immigrants are "pouring across the southern border."

"Trump is going to say whatever he wants to say," Guzman says. "He does it as a fear factor or as a way to alarm the nation. But the fact of the matter is the math doesn't back up Trump's allegations."

Garcia says Trump doesn't care about facts and prefers to sound the alarm about "swarms of immigrants who are flooding across the border."

"He uses that demagoguery to frighten his followers and to expand his base," Garcia says, adding that he hopes voters will see through his lies before the November election.