A sharp drop in the number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States that accompanied the start of the Great Recession has leveled off in recent years and could be ticking back upward as the economy improves, according to a report released Monday.
The analysis from the Pew Research Center estimated that there were 11.7 million immigrants living in the country illegally in March 2012. That represented a slight increase from the estimated 11.3 million in 2009, during the worst year of the recession. The number was 12.2 million in 2007, before the recession began.
Analysts say the changes over the past few years could not definitively prove that the number of unauthorized immigrants is rising again because the figures represent the midpoint of ranges based on U.S. census surveys and other data.
"The 2012 population estimate … in a statistical sense is no different from the 2009 estimate," the authors of the report wrote. However, they said there is little doubt that the decline of unauthorized immigrants during the recession has "bottomed out."
The report's findings could lend new urgency to the debate over comprehensive immigration reform in Congress. The Democratic-controlled Senate has approved a sweeping plan to add new layers of security along the U.S.-Mexico border, provide more legal channels for immigration and allow those here illegally to gain citizenship over 13 years if they pay fines, learn English, remain employed and do not commit crimes.
But the Republican-led House has shelved that plan and focused instead on bills that do not include measures to legalize undocumented immigrants.