The extraordinary Mexican migration that delivered millions of illegal immigrants to the United States over the past 30 years has sputtered to a trickle, and research points to a surprising cause: Unheralded changes in Mexico have made staying home more attractive.
A growing body of evidence suggests that a mix of developments — expanding economic and educational opportunities, rising border crime and shrinking families— are suppressing illegal traffic as much as economic slowdowns or immigrant crackdowns in the United States.
Here in the red-earth highlands of Jalisco, one of Mexico’s top three states for emigration over the past century, a new dynamic has emerged. For a typical rural family like the Orozcos, heading to El Norte without papers is no longer an inevitable rite of passage. Instead, their homes are filling up with returning relatives; older brothers who once crossed illegally are awaiting visas; and the youngest Orozcos are staying put.
"I’m not going to go to the States because I’m more concerned with my studies," said Angel Orozco, 18.
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Indeed, at the new technological institute where he is earning a degree in industrial engineering, all the students in a recent class said they were better educated than their parents — and that they planned to stay in Mexico rather than go to the United States.
Douglas S. Massey, co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton, an extensive, long-term survey in Mexican emigration hubs, said his research showed that interest in heading to the United States for the first time had fallen to its lowest level since at least the 1950s.
"No one wants to hear it, but the flow has already stopped," Massey said, referring to illegal traffic. "For the first time in 60 years, the net traffic has gone to zero and is probably a little bit negative."
The decline in illegal immigration, from a country responsible for about six of every 10 illegal immigrants in the United States, is stark. The Mexican census recently discovered 4 million more people in Mexico than had been projected, which officials attributed to a sharp decline in emigration.
U.S. census figures analyzed by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center also show that the illegal Mexican population in the United States has shrunk and that fewer than 100,000 illegal border-crossers and visaviolators from Mexico settled in the United States in 2010, down from about 525,000 a year from 2000 to 2004. Although some advocates for more limited immigration say the Pew estimates do not include shortterm migrants, most experts agree that far fewer illegal immigrants have been arriving in recent years.
The question is why. Experts and U.S. politicians from both parties have generally looked inward, arguing about the success or failure of the buildup of border enforcement and tougher laws limiting illegal immigrants’ rights — such as those recently passed in Alabama and Arizona. Deportations have reached record highs as total border apprehensions and apprehensions of Mexicans crossing illegally have fallen by more than 70 percent since 2000.
But Mexican emigration has always been defined by both the push (from Mexico) and the pull (of the United States). The decision to leave home involves a comparison, a wrenching costbenefit analysis, and just as a Mexican baby boom and economic crises kicked off emigration waves in the 1980s and ’90s, research shows that the easing of demographic and economic pressures is helping keep departures in check.
In simple terms, Mexican families are smaller than they once were, shrinking the pool of likely migrants. Despite the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico, 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 1 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.
Even in larger families like the Orozcos’ — Angel is the ninth of 10 children — the migration calculation has changed. Crossing “mojado,” wet or illegally, has become more expensive and more dangerous, particularly with drug cartels dominating the border. At the same time, educational and employment opportunities have greatly expanded in Mexico. Per capita gross domestic product and family income have each jumped more than 45 percent since 2000, according to prominent economist Roberto Newell.
A significant expansion of legal immigration— aided by U.S. consular officials — is also under way. Congress may be debating immigration reform but in Mexico, visas without a congressionally mandated cap on how many people can enter have increased from 2006 to 2010, compared with the previous five years.
State Department figures show that Mexicans who have become U.S. citizens have legally brought in 64 percent more immediate relatives, 220,500 from 2006 through 2010, compared with the figures for the previous five years. Tourist visas are also being granted at higher rates of around 89 percent, up from 67 percent, while U.S. farmers have legally hired 75 percent more temporary workers since 2006.
Edward McKeon, the top U.S. official for consular affairs in Mexico, said he had focused on making legal passage to the United States easier in an effort to prevent people from giving up and going illegally. He has even helped those who were previously illegal overcome bans on entering the United States.
"If people are trying to do the right thing," McKeon said, "we need to send the signal that we’ll reward them."