A new report finds the U.S. birth rate has dropped to its lowest level on record, led by a dramatic decline in births among immigrant women. The trend has been visible at La Clinica del Pueblo, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that holds a weekly neonatal clinic.
"We went from about 100 [pregnancies] to 90, to 80, another year with 80, and then 70," says Dr. Madeline Wilks. Her patients are largely foreign-born Hispanics. Some are in the U.S. legally, some are not, and many are uninsured.
Wilks isn't exactly sure why so many have decided not to have babies in recent years. "We've been puzzling over that," she says.
The drop is all the more striking because immigrants have long propped up the U.S. birth rate, keeping it higher than that of many other developed nations. But Thursday's report by the Pew Research Center finds that while the U.S. birth rate is down generally since the recession, it's fallen twice as much among the foreign-born.
Many of La Clinica del Pueblo's immigrant patrons hold low-wage jobs with no benefits like paid leave, says Wilks, making money a worry for many of her clients. "We do have people who just can't feed their families if they're not working. And they can't work when they're with new babies."
Wilks says she even had a patient last year who put her baby up for adoption. "And that's just not done in this community," she says. "I've never seen that. But she just really clearly said, 'I need to give my baby a chance.' And it was heartbreaking."
Dr. Joshua Kolko, another physician at La Clinica del Pueblo, says he sees more women carefully planning their pregnancies. Long-term contraceptives are particularly popular, he says.
"A lot of women are coming to us and asking for some means of contraception," he says, "or of timing their pregnancies for when they are in a more stable situation."
The Pew report also breaks down birth rates by national origin — with particularly significant findings for some populations.
"We found that for Mexicans in particular, the declines were really dramatic," says Pew senior researcher Gretchen Livingston. Researchers found the birth rate for Mexican immigrants has fallen a stunning 23 percent since 2007.
She says previous Pew research has found a strong link between fertility and those who fared worst in the recent recession.
"Hispanics were the hardest hit in terms of employment," she says. "Their wealth declined by something like 66 percent during the recession." Also important, she notes, is that "Hispanics perceive themselves as being extremely hard hit by the recession."
There may be other factors at work beyond the economy. There's also been an ongoing, if less publicized, crackdown on workplaces that employ those in the U.S. illegally. The number of deportations rose to nearly 400,000 in 2011 — a record level.
That uncertainty has immigrants second-guessing their choices, says Xiomara Corpeno of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
"There is a lot more uncertainty. ... Like, well, 'We're together, we have this family, we'd love to expand it, but we don't know if we're going to be here tomorrow,' " she says.
Even if immigrants continue grappling with those wrenching decisions, the Pew report projects that the foreign born will continue to drive U.S. population growth in coming decades. The vast majority of births, the researchers predict, will be to immigrants who've arrived just since 2005 and their descendants.