Undocumented immigrants outnumber legal ones, and their desire to return home might be waning.

Report on immigrants paints a complex picture

June 15, 2005|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

Jose Camacho's goal seemed simple enough: Leave Guanajuato, Mexico, for Baltimore, work hard enough to earn $10,000 and return home after a few months.

But once he reached $10,000, he yearned to make $15,000 or more. Before long, a few months became five years. Today, Camacho, 50, lives here with his wife and three children, and he earns more money laying cable than he could back home.

The most important attraction for people such as Camacho, who enter the United States illegally, remains economic opportunity. More undocumented than legal immigrants live in the United States, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report released yesterday.

If the 44-page report can be summed up into one finding, it is that the undocumented population is growing increasingly complex, with family networks made up of illegal and legal residents.

The majority of immigrants are men, and about one in seven is a child. Nearly 3 million children of undocumented adults are U.S. citizens by birth.

"The presence of wives, children and the high levels of work experience in the United States, suggests that by and large, this may be a population reluctant to leave the U.S. and return to their home countries," said Jeffrey S. Passel, senior research associate at Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center.

The report expands on a previous Pew study, which found in March 2004 that 10.3 million "unauthorized migrants" were living in the United States, an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 of whom lived in Maryland.

57% from Mexico

About 57 percent were from Mexico, and 24 percent were from elsewhere in Latin America.

Based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other agencies, the reports classified "undocumented" or "unauthorized" immigrants as those who did not fit legal categories of permanent residents, refugees, those granted asylum and workers and students on temporary visas.

The new study, which offers nuances about a population at the center of a thorny national debate, focuses on educational attainment, income and family structure.

"This study very clearly illustrates how complex the task has become with creating new policies concerning the unauthorized population," said Rober Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center.

Developed for the Independent Task Force on Immigration and America's Future, a bipartisan group convened by the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute and other think tanks, the report aims to be a tool for policy-makers. Among the members is former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Jobs are often the draw for immigrants, but economic mobility in the United States remains elusive for many. Workers such as Camacho can earn more here than in their home countries, but they often remain trapped in low-paying jobs.

Although immigrants are more likely than the native-born to hold jobs, they earn less, have higher rates of poverty and are less likely to obtain advanced degrees, the study found.

Population widespread

The report found that the immigrant population is widespread. Between 2002 and 2004, it says, nearly 40 percent of the immigrants settled outside the six traditional settlement states, California, New York, Texas, Florida, New Jersey and Illinois.

With Maryland's immigrant population swelling, immigration reform has become a topic of statewide debate, with proposals to limit driver's licenses and make English the official state language, both of which have been defeated.

Advocates for immigrants say the measures would have limited the rights of undocumented residents, many of whom have put down roots.

The Washington suburbs have been a magnet for immigration, legal and illegal. Baltimore has seen a more rapid increase in the number of immigrants only in the past decade.

"When I arrived in this area in 1982, the undocumented population in the D.C. area was where the Baltimore-Annapolis population is now," said Ives Martinez, president of the Association of Latino Marylanders of Anne Arundel County.

Jose Vaena, 33, left San Luis Potosi, Mexico, for Baltimore 12 years ago. He met his wife, Gloria, a Honduran, in Baltimore.

`Precarious' status

Last year, she gave birth to a daughter, Cindy, Vaena said.

Neither parent has immigration papers. Cindy is eligible for state health insurance, but her parents have none.

"I hope she achieves, I hope she studies, graduates from school and gets a career," Vaena said of Cindy. "But our status is still precarious. We know at any point we may have to go home."

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