Immigrants and their U.S.-born children account for 1 in 4 people living in poverty, and have contributed to nearly three-fourths of the increase in the uninsured population since 1989, according to a new report by the Center for Immigration Studies.

There are 35.2 million immigrants living in the nation, more than at any other time in the nation's history, according to the report. It estimates that nearly half of the 7.9 million immigrants who arrived between January 2000 and March 2005 were illegal.

The report estimates that 11 million illegal immigrants live in the United States, comprising about 3 percent of the population. However, they comprise an estimated 14 percent of all uninsured individuals.

The report was released Monday by CIS, a nonpartisan research organization that supports lowered levels of immigration, as the U.S. Congress prepares to debate several immigration-reform proposals.

The Pew Hispanic Center has estimated Utah's illegal immigrant population at 85,000 for 2003-2004. Utah's total estimated immigrant population is 150,000, accounting for about 6 percent of the state's population — up from 4 percent in 1995.

Steven Camarota, author of the CIS report, called Utah's overall immigrant growth "modest compared to other states, but it's growing fast."

Camarota said a key question in immigration policy is the social cost to taxpayers as increasing numbers of low-skilled workers compete with the poorest Americans for jobs.

But Angela Kelley, deputy director of the immigrant rights group National Immigration Forum, said that "it's counter-intuitive to say we want to keep 11 million people in a suppressed, underground economy."

The House Judiciary Committee last week approved a border security bill with provisions that range from tougher employer fines to faster deportations. The measure now moves to the House floor for debate.

Early next year, the Senate is expected to take up its own measures, some of which would include guest-worker plans supported by immigrant-rights advocates.

"It is far better to have a regulated system where employers have to play by the rules, and show that they need foreign workers," Kelley said. "We can't even begin to evaluate whether and who we need because there's not a system in place for doing it."

Camarota said low education levels, with resulting low wages — not legal status — is the main reason that so many immigrants live in poverty, use welfare programs or lack health insurance.

"Legal, unskilled immigrants use a lot of welfare and also have very high rates of poverty," Camarota said. "That's one of the big problems; that's why legalization doesn't solve anything."

The CIS report, based on the U.S. Census Bureau's March, 2005, Current Population Study, found that 62 percent of illegal immigrants and their children lived at or near poverty levels, compared to 55 percent of unskilled legal immigrants and 29 percent of U.S.-born individuals.

It said 28.6 percent of immigrant-headed households use a major welfare program, compared to 18.2 percent of native-born-citizen headed households. The report found that 29.3 percent of immigrants and their children were uninsured, compared to 13.2 percent of U.S.-born citizens.

The report also looked at occupational distribution. It found farming, fishing and forestry; construction and extraction; and building cleaning and maintenance; all had U.S.-born unemployment rates ranging from 10 to 13 percent in March, but saw gains in immigrant employment.

An estimated 644,000 immigrants who arrived since 2000 worked in construction or extraction in March, the report said. Meanwhile, some 809,000 U.S.-born workers in the industry reported being unemployed.

Camarota said the data calls into question the argument that American workers don't want the jobs immigrants are taking.

However, John Gay, the National Restaurant Association's senior vice president for government affairs and public policy, said overall unemployment is relatively low, at 5 percent in November, and the economy is strengthening.

"What we've seen over the past decade is a market response as (American) workers move up to higher-end jobs, and there are more openings on the lower end," he said. "That's a good trend."


E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com