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Mexicans No Longer Immigrating to US? (What Will Xenophobes Freak Out About Now?)

A common perception that helps fuel hostility toward migrants is that there's a never-ending pool of people dying to come here, but that's just not true.
 
 
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It appears that a large wave of immigration to the U.S. which began in the 1990s has now come to an end. The share of the population represented by non-citizens dropped by 5 percent between 2005 and 2009 (the last year for which data are available).

The fall-off in unauthorized immigration is even more pronounced. Last year, the Washington Post reported that while “an average of 850,000 people a year entered the United States without authorization” in the first half of the decade, “as the economy plunged into recession between 2007 and 2009, that number fell to 300,000.”

Others are returning home; according to the Pew Hispanic Trust, we saw “an overall reduction of 8% in the number of unauthorized immigrants currently living in the U.S.” between early 2007 and early 2009.

Worldwide, Gallup finds that “people's desire to migrate permanently to another country is showing signs of cooling.” 

Immigration from Mexico – which provided the largest number of immigrants to the U.S. during this latest wave – has all but dried up. Douglas S. Massey, co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton, told the New York Times that fewer Mexicans want to migrate northward today than at any time since at least the 1950s. “No one wants to hear it, but the flow has already stopped,” Massey told the Times, referring to illegal entries. “For the first time in 60 years, the net traffic has gone to zero and is probably a little bit negative.”

A common misperception that helps fuel hostility toward immigrants is that there is a never-ending pool of people dying to come here and if we don't hold the line we'll be overrun. The reality is that we have always had a modest flow of new immigrants punctuated by large but finite spikes from one country or another. Individuals have all sorts of reasons for emigrating, but when large numbers migrate from a single country or region, it's always been in response to some kind of shock in their country of origin, be it civil strife or pestilence or drought or war or economic collapse or natural disaster. That's true whether we're talking about the Irish fleeing the Great Potato Famine, Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms or Vietnamese boat people fleeing war in Southeast Asia. The Wikipedia entry for Swedish emigration to America explains why their numbers peaked just after the Civil War:

There was widespread resentment against the religious repression practiced by the Swedish Lutheran State Church and the social conservatism and class snobbery of the Swedish monarchy. Population growth and crop failures made conditions in the Swedish countryside increasingly bleak.

This is true of the wave of Mexican immigration that now appears to be coming to an end. According to a study by the Pew organization, Mexican immigration "grew very rapidly starting in the mid-1990s, hit a peak at the end of the decade, and then declined substantially after 2001.” According to some estimates, 9 percent of the Mexican population pulled up roots and headed north during this period.

What happened to spur that movement? A few things. First, that timeline corresponds perfectly with the damage wrought in Mexican labor markets by NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). Employment in Mexico's agricultural sector dropped by 16 percent between 1993, the year before NAFTA went into effect, and 2002. Service sector employment was stable -- it didn't absorb many of those workers. And while manufacturing increased in the maquiladoras between 1994 and 2000 -- when it peaked with about 800,000 jobs – the maquiladora zone shed 250,000 of those jobs over the next three years, most of them outsourced to China. Make capital mobile, make goods mobile and people will have no choice but to mobilize themselves.

 
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