Data from both sides of the border suggest illegal immigration from Mexico is in fast retreat, as U.S. job shortages, tighter border enforcement and criminal gangs on the Mexican side dissuade many from making the trip.

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MEXICO CITY — North of the U.S.-Mexico border, Republican presidential candidates are talking tough on illegal immigration, with one proposing — perhaps in jest — an electrified fence to deter migrants.

But data from both sides of the border suggest illegal immigration from Mexico already is in fast retreat, as U.S. job shortages, tighter border enforcement and the presence of criminal gangs on the Mexican side dissuade many from making the trip.

Mexican census figures show fewer Mexicans are setting out and many are returning — leaving net migration at close to zero, Mexican officials say. Arrests by the U.S. Border Patrol along the southwestern frontier, a common gauge of how many people try to cross without papers, tumbled to 304,755 during the 11 months ending in August, extending a nearly steady drop since a peak of 1.6 million in 2000.

The scale of the fall has prompted some to suggest we may be seeing the end of a decades-long migration boom, even as others argue it’s only a momentary drop.

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“Our country is not experiencing the population loss due to migration that was seen for nearly 50 years,” René Zenteno, a deputy interior secretary for migration matters, has said.

Douglas Massey, an immigration scholar at Princeton University, said surveys of residents in Mexican migrant towns he has studied for years found that the number of people making their first trip north had dwindled to near zero.

“We are at a new point in the history of migration between Mexico and the United States,” Massey said in a Mexico City news conference in August.

Experts in Mexico say the trend primarily is economic. Long-standing, back-and-forth migration has been thrown off as the U.S. downturn dried up jobs — in construction and restaurants, for example — that once drew legions of Mexican workers.

About 12.5 million Mexican immigrants live in the United States, slightly more than half without papers, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

These days, Mexicans in the United States have discouraging words for loved ones about prospects for work up north. U.S. contractors who used to recruit in Mexico likewise have little to offer.

“What stimulates migration is the need for workers,” said Genoveva Roldán, a scholar at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “Right now, the migrant networks are functioning to say, ‘Don’t come — there’s no work.’ “

Juan Carlos Calleros, a researcher in Mexico’s National Migration Institute, said the agency’s surveys find a large share of Mexican migrants coming home on their own or sent back by the Border Patrol had spent only a month or two on U.S. soil and returned because they lacked work.

Alongside the bleak jobs picture is a trek that has grown riskier and expensive because of stepped-up enforcement on the U.S. side, a crackdown that at the same time has prompted many migrants to stay in the United States rather than try to cross back and forth. Migrants also cite an increasingly hostile political climate north of the border, as expressed in state laws targeting illegal immigrants.

“It keeps getting harder and harder,” said Joel Buzo, 35, who returned to the central state of Guanajuato after a three-month search turned up only irregular, poorly paid work tearing up old railroad tracks in Utah. He lasted six more months before giving up.

Buzo, a musician, said it’s easier to get by in Mexico, even though jobs are also scarce. He has no plans to travel north again.

“What’s happening up there is happening here,” he said by telephone from the migrant-heavy town of Romita. “But it’s worse there.”

In Guanajuato, long one of the country’s biggest migrant-sending states, thousands of Mexicans have come back, but “it hasn’t been a massive return,” said Susana Guerra, who heads the state’s migrant-affairs office. She calls the decline in northward migration a “spasm” — not a lasting reality.

Safety in northern Mexico also has become a growing worry for would-be migrants.

Nearly 200 people, many of them U.S.-bound Mexican migrants, were killed in the northern state of Tamaulipas last spring after being seized from buses by gunmen believed tied to the Zetas drug gang. A year earlier, 72 migrants from Central and South America were massacred in the same area.

“It’s not worth it — for now,” Calleros said.

The real test of whether the migration drop represents a lasting change will come when the U.S. economy gets back on its feet.

Carlos Mireles, who lives in the town of Manuel Doblado, Guanajuato, said two nephews moved to Mexico City after they lost their restaurant jobs in Chicago and spent six months without work. But the young men, in their 20s, haven’t given up on life north of the border.

“Their idea is to go back to Chicago when things get better, because wages are so little here in Mexico,” Mireles said. “That’s why they want to return to the United States.”

Los Angeles Times reporter Cecilia Sanchez contributed to this report.

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