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The number of driving privilege cards issued to illegal immigrants in Utah dived to a four-year low as state data revealed Friday only 36,921 were issued or renewed in 2012 — off from 43,000 in the peak year of 2008.

Chris Caras, driver service bureau chief with the Utah Department of Public Safety, said the agency doesn't track reasons for the decline — but that doesn't mean there aren't theories linked to the numbers.

Michael Clara, a Salt Lake City School Board member who works closely with the undocumented immigrant community, said the tough economy sent people packing — often to their country of origin.

He said he knows of several people who had driving privilege cards and left recently to go back to work in Mexico.

"There was no work here and the people I know that were here for economic reasons left, and they're now getting jobs in Mexico," Clara said. "They're bilingual and the skills they got here allow them to work in hotels and other jobs in Mexico. It served them well."

Statistics on the undocumented immigrant population in Utah are difficult to come by — with the most recent Pew Hispanic Center study showing a decline in the population in Arizona, Nevada and Utah. The trio of states saw the illegal immigration population go from 830,000 in 2008 to 700,000 in 2009. There was also an overall drop in the illegal immigration population nationally — sliding from 12 million to 11 million.

With the bulk of the illegal immigration population from Mexico, Pew also showed between 2005 and 2010 about 1.4 million Mexicans immigrated to the United States. But, about 1.4 million Mexican immigrants and their U.S.-born children moved out of the United States to Mexico.

Pam Perlich, a senior economist with the University of Utah, said the economic recession was a broad tide that impacted illegal immigration. She said immigration was usually linked to existing ties in a region — family generally. Perlich said some of the illegal immigrants came from South America just as the recession hit in late 2007 and didn't have the existing ties of family when arriving in Utah.

Once the job market shriveled up, there wasn't much incentive for them to stay in Utah, either.

"The late arrivals didn't have these long-term roots in Utah communities and so they were the least secure," Perlich said. "The longer the recession dragged on, the more vulnerable those folks were to not being able to make it here and going back instead."

The driving privilege card was signed into law in 2005 by Gov. Jon Huntsman as a way for illegal immigrants in the state to obtain insurance and legally drive in Utah. It was often criticized, however, for being a clear identifier of those who were in the country illegally, and it also didn't serve as legal identification.

In its initial year, there were about 25,000 issued and almost 34,000 in the second year.

They cost $25 to obtain and must be renewed each year — as opposed to a regular driver license, which is good for five years.

Caras said in addition to the decline in driving privilege cards being issued, the agency has seen an uptick in the number of limited-term licenses being dispensed by the state.

He said those started being issued in 2010, and in the past two years, the number of limited-term licenses shot up from 4,324 to 8,512 in 2012.

He said those are only issued to those who have a limited time-frame to legally work in the United States — including visa holders and those now eligible under President Barack Obama's deferred action directive that grants a limited group of undocumented immigrants a two-year work permit.

Deferred action went into effect last August, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data showed between its start date and Dec. 14, 355,889 were approved nationally. USCIS only issues data for the top 10 states with applicants, and Utah isn't in that group.

However, Colorado ranked 10th and received 7,124 applications. Approvals weren't listed in the chart.

Roger Tsai, a Salt Lake City immigration lawyer, said Utah's number of applicants would be "maybe half of Colorado's intake."

He said it was unclear as to whether those applicants in Utah would account for the spike in applications for limited term licences.

Twitter; @davemontero

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