JEFFERSON CITY — The number of illegal immigrants arrested by Missouri troopers has fallen significantly in the three years since the state began checking the residency status of everyone booked into jail.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol turned up an average of one illegal immigrant per day during the initial months after former Republican Gov. Matt Blunt ordered it to check the immigration status of everyone it incarcerated in August 2007, according to records obtained by The Associated Press under the state Sunshine Law.
But the number of illegal immigrants found by those checks declined by more than 40 percent in 2008 and an additional 30 percent in 2009, according to the patrol records. It has leveled off at that lower rate this year.
Missouri's immigration-check requirement was a precursor to the more stringent and contentious Arizona law, parts of which have been placed on hold by a federal judge. The Arizona law requires police, while enforcing other laws, to question people's immigration status if there is a reasonable suspicion they're in the country illegally.
Missouri's gubernatorial directive was expanded to a state law in August 2008 and has continued to be enforced since Democrat Jay Nixon became governor in 2009. But unlike the Arizona law, the Missouri measure applies only to people who already have been jailed — not merely investigated — for violating other laws.
Since the beginning of the mandatory status checks through Sept. 18, the Missouri State Highway Patrol incarcerated 602 people it determined were in the U.S. illegally. Well over half of those occurred in the first 16 months of the program, according to patrol records.
There were a couple of sizable busts of illegal immigrants in 2007 and 2008. But the patrol hasn't changed its procedures nor its emphasis on conducting the immigration checks, said spokesman Lt. John Hotz.
"There's really no reason why the number of illegals has gone down from our perspective," Hotz said.
Advocates for immigrants and the Hispanic community say the decline may be due to the poor economy, which has led fewer people to come to the U.S. and to Missouri.
"People come here for jobs, and if there aren't jobs available, then they don't come in the same numbers," said Joan Suarez, chairwoman of the board of Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates.
The number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. declined to an estimated 11.1 million in March 2009 from a peak of 12 million in March 2007, according to a study released earlier this month by the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington-based research organization.
The center estimated Missouri had 60,000 illegal immigrants, equating to 1 percent of the state's population. That ranks Missouri 43rd nationally in its per capita population of illegal immigrants — a lower ranking than all of its neighboring states.
"Missouri was not, shall we say, a destination of choice to begin with for most undocumented immigrants coming to the country," said Jorge Riopedre, executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis. "If those numbers start to fall (nationally), I wouldn't be surprised to see Missouri fall."
Besides mandating immigration status checks on incarcerated people, the 2008 Missouri law also took several other steps to target illegal immigrants. It required people to prove they are U.S. citizens when applying for public benefits, and it required public employers and many government contractors to use a federal database that checks immigration status.
Missouri's laws on immigration-status checks may also be deterring some people from coming to the state, Riopedre said.