According to a new study, Washington is among just a handful of states seeing an increase in illegal immigration — and about half of Washington’s growth is coming from Asia.
Illegal immigration is on the rise in Washington state, according to a new study — and we’re one of just six states to see an increase.
While discussions of illegal immigration often focus on Mexico, the data show the national rise is coming entirely from Asian countries, particularly China and India, and other regions of the world.
The report, published by the Pew Research Center, shows the number of people living in Washington without legal permission reached 250,000 in 2014, jumping by about 40,000 since 2009.
Seven states experienced a decline in that period. But most of the nation — all the remaining 37 states — saw no significant change.
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Overall, the population of those living illegally in the U.S. has remained stable at about 11.1 million since 2009.
But the data show the makeup of that population has become much more diverse: The number from Mexico has been declining, while the total from other parts of the world has climbed.
That trend is evident in five of the six states where illegal immigration grew. Only Louisiana saw its increase coming from Mexico.
In Washington, those from Asia represent about half the state’s increase, according to Jeffrey S. Passel, senior demographer at Pew. The number of people from countries in Central America and sub-Saharan Africa living in the U.S. without authorization also rose.
After Mexico, the largest populations of immigrants residing in Washington illegally in 2014 were from India (20,000) and China (10,000).
“We think most of undocumented immigrants from Asia got here with documents legally, and then overstayed their admission,” Passel said. It is likely that many come here on tourist visas.
Last year alone, more than 50,000 visitors from Asia overstayed their visas, according to a report issued by the Department of Homeland Security.
What’s compelling them to do so? There appear to be multiple factors at work.
Diane Narasaki, executive director of the Seattle-based nonprofit Asian Counseling and Referral Service, points to people trying to reunite with family members who have resettled in the U.S. The problem is they often find those efforts stymied by interminable wait times for green cards, which provide legal residency.
In the case of China, she said, people can wait up to 13 years to reunite with their families here, depending on the degree of family relations. It can take up to 14 years for family members in India, and 23 years from the Philippines.
“Our immigration system is broken,” Narasaki said.
Because the wait times are so long, people are sometimes motivated to enter the country on a tourist visa, for example, and then stay past the expiration date, she said.
Joel Yanovich, an attorney with the Bellevue branch of the Murthy Law Firm, which handles immigration issues, agrees that many immigrants from Asia who remain in the country illegally had entered on tourist visas.
However, he senses that most are here for work opportunities.
They may have been offered a job here, which they then lost, but decided to stay in the country. Or they may be able to make more money here than at home — even if they have to work under the table.
But he doesn’t believe that tech workers from Asia who are here on temporary employment visas represent a significant number of those who overstay. Microsoft and Amazon are among the top 20 companies for sponsoring foreign workers through this type of visa, called an H-1B, which is only granted to employees in certain occupations.
“I don’t get that call very often,” Yanovich said. “These people are professionals — the ones from Asia, especially India, are tech workers … While I’m sure there are tech companies that hire people without work authorization, I don’t think it’s prevalent.”
Students may also make up a portion of those who overstay, says Jorge Barón, executive director of the Seattle-based nonprofit Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
“We’ve had situations where people may have come as students and they expressed political opinions here regarding, for example, China,” he said. “And they start getting threats, and they decide it’s not safe for them to return to their home country.”