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Illegal Immigrants Flee In Face Of New Laws, But To Where?

Paresh Dave |
October 25, 2011 | 5:13 a.m. PDT


Lemin Rodriguez's boss tapped him on the shoulder and offered him a warning a year ago.

The tide against illegal immigration had changed in Arizona. If Rodriguez wanted to make a living in America, he needed to leave Phoenix. He could move back to his native Monterrey, Mexico, return to where he spent his first two years in the U.S. in Kansas City, Missouri or travel to a more welcome confine such as Los Angeles.

Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia have all passed laws to drive away illegal immigrants, leaving the states with a scarcity of cheap labor while potentially creating surpluses elsewhere.

A half-dozen experts on U.S. immigration said it’s impossible to track exactly where the fleeing immigrants end up.

“Just like if you or I had to suddenly move, you would move to a job or somewhere where you know someone,” said Bryan Griffith, a spokesman with the Center for Immigration Studies.

Rodriguez, who now lives on the streets of L.A., doesn’t have any friends or family here. He loves the United States far too much to have any interest in returning to Mexico, where he said employers cheat laborers out of money. At least in America, Rodriguez, 30, knows when he gets a job that he will be rightfully paid, he said. 

But Rodriguez hasn’t found a steady low-skilled job amid a glut of people just like him in L.A. He once earned $200 a day in Kansas City to work on roofing and painting projects. It’s now $80 a day once in a while to move boxes.

With President Barack Obama and Congress making little progress on immigration reform, a handful of states have set out to deter illegal immigration on their own despite the chilling effects on an already sour economy.

Most recently, an Alabama law requiring schools to ask for the immigration status of students reportedly drove hundreds of parents to pull their children out of school. Once the long-term data from Alabama schools can be studied, the law’s effect on the state's estimated 130,000 illegal immigrants will become more clear.

One study that offers some clues to what is happening now comes from the Public Policy Institute of California, which found a 17 percent decline in the Arizona’s illegal immigrant population -- about 92,000 people -- after the passage in 2007 of legislation penalizing employers who failed to verify the immigration status of new hires. (See a map of other states with a similar E-Verify mandate)

The law cut down on the economic opportunities for illegal immigrants, likely ushering them to states such as California and Texas or forcing them into the “underworld” of self-employment. Now the economic opportunities that drew illegal immigrants to Southern and Atlantic states are causing them to give a second look to nearby states such as Tennessee and Florida.

"They are pretty smart and pretty connected," said Ann Garcia, a research assistant for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. "They wouldn't move to a place where the job market is depressed. Luckily, farm labor is needed all across the country. Anecodtoal evidence shows Americans are not willing to take those jobs."

Despite a 12.4 percent unemployment rate, L.A.'s blue-collar economy is attractive to those who can find a trucker or friend to get them there because its home to immigrant populations from every Latin country imaginable.

“L.A. has the social pull, which might have become more important as the job opportunities dried up elsewhere,” said Sarah Bohn, a PPIC fellow.

The Center for American Progress, which has ties to the Obama administration, is pushing the congressional supercommittee to consider immigration reform as one way of to cut the federal deficit during the next decade. Mayors and business leaders have called for visa reform as a way to stimulate job growth.

Meanwhile, South Carolina could be the next state to see a drop in illegal immigrants. A new enforcement law goes into effect in January unless it is struck down by the courts.

More details on each state's recent immigration laws and their statuses after clicking the map below.

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