With the third most illegal immigrants in the country, Florida has been in the thick of the simmering national debate over proposed Arizona-style immigration laws.
Some politicians, especially Republican Rick Scott in his well-financed run for governor, have made the issue central to their campaigns.
But a new study shows that two-thirds fewer illegal immigrants entered the country last year compared to 10 years ago. And local immigration experts say Florida's dismal economy is prompting many illegal immigrants to return home.
"I've heard that there are buses going quite regularly back to Mexico," said Ella Schmidt, an associate anthropology professor at the University of South Florida who studies migrant issues. "Every day people are leaving and going back home … especially those who came in the last five or six years."
Since 2000, illegal immigration into the United States has dropped nearly 67 percent, according to the report released Wednesday by the Pew Hispanic Center. In Florida alone, the population dropped by 375,000 from 2008 to 2009 to about 675,000 people.
The political hyperbole at times makes it seem as if the nation and state are under siege from a swelling band of illegal immigrants. But the news that the immigrant population is shrinking didn't shock local people who are plugged into the issue.
"I wish people knew the truth about illegal immigration," said Neil Lewis, an immigration attorney in Tampa. "Those opposed to immigration would have you believe the numbers haven't changed. … I've been able to tell for a while that the Mexican base in Tampa is shrinking."
The Pew Hispanic Center's report comes from March 2009 census data.
It estimates that 11.1 million illegal immigrants lived in the United States in 2009. That represents a decrease of roughly 1 million, or 8 percent, from a peak of 12 million in 2007.
It's also the first time the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States has dropped in two decades.
The number of illegal immigrants coming from Mexico has remained steady over the last several years, but there has been a significant drop in illegal immigrants from the Caribbean, Central America and South America, the study found.
County numbers weren't available Wednesday, but local experts say they have heard that more people are leaving and fewer people are coming to the area — mainly because of the economy.
The unemployment rate for illegal immigrants in March 2009 was 10.4 percent — higher than that of U.S.-born workers or legal immigrants, who had unemployment of 9.2 percent and 9.1 percent, respectively.
"There is a combination of factors that obviously are working against immigrants," said Schmidt, the anthropology professor.
Lewis said immigrants also are finding the increased scrutiny on them uncomfortable, which could be prompting more of them to return to their native countries.
Stepped-up enforcement also has played a part, he said. Immigrants used to annually come and go across the border to work. But more enforcement — along with job losses in the construction and tourism industries in Florida — has led many people to leave or not bother coming at all. The ones who are here, he said, are mainly trying to lay low because they fear that if they leave, they won't be able to return.
The Pew study also found that while the number of illegal immigrants fell, there was a slight increase in the number of legal immigrants who came to this county over the past decade.
Fraser Ottanelli, who teaches history at USF, said people often lose a long-term perspective when it comes to illegal immigration. He said a similar exodus happened in the 1930s during the Great Depression.
Information from the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.