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

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.

But it didn't start with NAFTA. The “peso crisis” caused a severe recession south of the border in the late 1980s. The country had seen a mini baby boom in the early 1980s, and its economy hadn't been able to absorb those babies as they came of age and entered the workforce in the 1990s. Mexico doesn't have unemployment insurance.

As the Mexican labor market began to rebound, the numbers started falling after 2001. According to the Times' analysis, the dramatic drop-off of recent years is due to a changing combination of push and pull factors. As the U.S. economy got pummeled following the collapse of the housing bubble, the opportunities for work here declined. At the same time, Mexico has seen strong economic growth over the past decade – incomes are up 45 percent over that time.

The Times also notes, “Birth control efforts have pushed down the fertility rate to about two children per woman from 6.8 in 1970, according to government figures. So while Mexico added about one million new potential job seekers annually in the 1990s, since 2007 that figure has fallen to an average of 800,000, according to government birth records. By 2030, it is expected to drop to 300,000.”

Finally, the number of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico has fallen even further because of the drug-fueled violence in the border zone and efforts by the American consulate in Mexico to increase the opportunities for people to enter the country legally.

What will the end of this latest wave of elevated immigration portend for the often-overheated policy debates? That's hard to say. There have been a number of studies looking at what drives native hostility toward the foreign-born, but their results are inconsistent. Some studies suggest that anger increases when the share of first- and second-generation immigrants is high. Others find that hostility toward newcomers correlates better with the unemployment rate. Still other researchers say that perceptions of how one's own economic fortunes are doing is a better predictor.

Whatever the case, the most common argument against providing some path to legalization for those unauthorized immigrants already in this country is that it will unleash a flood of newcomers. But with the number of unauthorized immigrants declining in spite of the lack of Congressional action, that should become a tougher argument to make.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.