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Sonoma County, North Bay sees decline in number of undocumented immigrants

The number of undocumented immigrants in Sonoma County has fallen by 10 percent, or about 3,500 people, since the turn of the century, a significant decline largely caused by the Great Recession, according to a new statewide report.

In 2013, there were about 38,500 undocumented immigrants living in Sonoma County, according to estimates by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, or PPIC. That was a sharp drop from the estimated 41,000 unauthorized immigrants living in the county in 2008, and the 42,000 in 2001.?The most significant decline came between 2008 and 2011, said Joe Hayes, co-author of the PPIC report, released last month.

The decline in Sonoma County mirrors state and national trends, with the recession seen as the common cause for the drop in undocumented immigrant numbers. Tough economic times, Hayes said, drove illegal immigrants out of the state and out of the country.

“Everybody seems to agree, economic opportunity is what drives immigration and that’s exactly what’s happening,” Hayes said.

The PPIC calculates that in 2013 there were 15,500 undocumented immigrants in Napa County and a combined 7,100 in Mendocino and Lake counties. Both estimates are down from those in 2008, when there were 16,000 undocumented residents in Napa and a combined 8,000 undocumented immigrants in Lake and Mendocino counties, according to the PPIC.

For its calculations, the think tank uses three sources of data: aggregate estimates of undocumented immigrants from the Center for Migration Studies; demographic estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey; and IRS tax data made available by the Brookings Institution. The tax data comes from the individual tax identification number, or ITIN, which is used by some undocumented immigrants to file tax refunds without a Social Security number, Hayes said.

Local immigration experts said they believe the decline in the number of undocumented immigrants is also the result of tougher border enforcement and deportation policies.

Richard Coshnear, an immigration attorney and advocate, said that despite claims made by the nation’s most conservative politicians, the border is a lot tougher and more expensive to cross.

“I don’t believe that the border is porous,” Coshnear said.

Coshnear said the cost to pay a “coyote” to illegally guide immigrants across the border has practically doubled in recent years. Some immigrants report having to pay $4,000 to $5,000.

Recent U.S. Border Patrol data also suggests there have been fewer attempted crossings.

Last year, federal agents apprehended more non-Mexicans than Mexicans at American borders, according to the Pew Research Center, which analyzed more than 60 years of Border Patrol data.

Because there’s no way to know how many immigrants illegally cross the border without being caught, the federal government uses apprehension data as a way of gauging the number of people who are trying to cross.

Pew said the shift was a sign that undocumented immigrants from Mexico are crossing less often than they were before the recession.

But Hayes said a previous study by PPIC showed that border enforcement had little effect on the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States. He said that before efforts in the mid-1990s at sealing the border, undocumented immigrants tended to come and go more freely.

Tighter border measures may have encouraged undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States longer than they would have otherwise, he said.

Still, Christopher Kerosky, a Bay Area immigration attorney, contends that immigration enforcement policies such as Secure Communities, which identifies undocumented immigrants as they pass through local jails, expedited the number of deportations in the past five to seven years.

But Kerosky agrees that the economic push is a strong factor determining where immigrants choose to live. He said that he has several clients who moved to states such as Arizona, Oklahoma, Nevada and Georgia because it’s easier to get a job in those states.

Frustration from waiting for immigration reform may be another factor, Kerosky said.

“There’s always a certain amount of people giving up waiting and going home, and there probably are fewer new people coming to replace them,” Kerosky said in an email.

You can reach Staff Writer?Martin Espinoza at 521-5213?or martin.espinoza@press?democrat.com. On Twitter?@renofish.

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