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.
AGUA NEGRA, Mexico — 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 a mix of developments — expanding economic and educational opportunities, border crime and shrinking families — are suppressing illegal traffic as much as economic slowdowns or immigrant crackdowns in the United States.
In the red-earth highlands of Jalisco, one of Mexico’s top three states for emigration in the past century, a new dynamic has emerged. For a typical rural family like the Orozcos, heading to El Norte without papers no longer is an inevitable rite of passage. Instead, homes are filling 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 Ángel 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.
Douglas Massey, a director of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton, an extensive, long-term survey in Mexican emigration hubs, said his research showed 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 [illegal] flow has already stopped,” Massey said. “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 roughly 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 the illegal Mexican population in the United States has shrunk and that fewer than 100,000 illegal border-crossers and visa-violators 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 that do not include short-term migrants, most experts agree far fewer illegal immigrants have been arriving.
The question is why. Experts and U.S. politicians from both parties generally look inward, arguing about the success or failure of border enforcement and tougher laws limiting illegal immigrants’ rights — such as those passed in Alabama and Arizona. Deportations have reached record highs as total border apprehensions and apprehensions of Mexicans have fallen by more than 70 percent since 2000.
But Mexican immigration always has been defined by both the push (from Mexico) and the pull (of the United States). The decision to leave home involves a comparison, a cost-benefit analysis, and just as a Mexican baby boom and economic crises kicked off emigration waves in the 1980s and ’90s, research shows the easing of demographic and economic pressures is helping keep departures in check.
In simple terms, Mexican families are smaller now, 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 potential job seekers annually in the 1990s, that figure has fallen to an average of 800,000 since 2007, according to birth records. It is expected to drop to 300,000 by 2030.
Even in larger families such as the Orozcos’ — Ángel 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. Educational and employment opportunities also have expanded greatly. Per capita gross domestic product and family income have each jumped more than 45 percent since 2000, according to one prominent economist, Roberto Newell. Despite depictions of Mexico as “nearly a failed state,” he argued, “the conventional wisdom is wrong.”
A significant expansion of legal immigration — aided by U.S. consular officials — is also under way. Congress may be debating an overhaul of immigration policy, 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 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 also are 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.
The recession cut into immigrant earnings in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, even as wages have risen in Mexico, according to World Bank figures. Jalisco’s quality of life has improved in other ways, too. About a decade ago, the cluster of the Orozco ranches on Agua Negra’s outskirts received electricity and running water. New census data shows a broad expansion of such services: water and trash collection, once unheard of outside cities, are available to more than 90 percent of Jalisco’s homes. Dirt floors now are found in only 3 percent of the state’s houses, down from 12 percent in 1990.
Still, education represents the most meaningful change. The census shows the number of Jalisco’s senior high schools or preparatory schools for students aged 15 to 18 increased to 724 in 2009, from 360 in 2000, far outpacing population growth. The Technological Institute of Arandas, where Ángel studies engineering, is one of 13 science campuses created in Jalisco since 2000 — a major reason professionals with a bachelor’s degree or higher also more than doubled to 821,983 in 2010, up from 405,415 in 2000. Similar changes have occurred elsewhere, and data from secondary schools like the one the Orozcos attended in Agua Negra suggest the trend will continue.
Around half the students now move on to higher schooling, up from 30 percent a decade ago.
“They’re identifying more with Mexico,” said Agustin Martinez Gonzalez, a teacher in Agua Negra. “With more education, they’re more likely to accept reality here and try to make it better.”