America is losing as many illegal immigrants as it’s gaining
You’d never know it from the Republican primary debates, but for the first time in more than four decades, illegal migration from Mexico has fallen to a net zero. All data indicate that the undocumented population of the United States is no longer growing. According to estimates from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, that population peaked at around 12 million in 2008, fell to 11 million in 2009 and has remained constant since then. Independent estimates prepared by the Pew Hispanic Trust show the same thing, and Mexican census data reveal unusually large numbers of former U.S. migrants remaining home rather than heading northward.
These population estimates are consistent with individual-level data collected by the Mexican Migration Project, a binational program I co-direct that has been surveying legal and unauthorized migrants on both sides of the border for 30 years. Statistical analyses reveal that the rate of new migration to the United States is essentially zero, while repeat visits by returned migrants are rare. In keeping with these calculations, border apprehensions have fallen to the lowest number since 1970 despite the fact that there are more Border Patrol agents on duty than ever.
Surprisingly, this turn of events does not likely have anything to do with border enforcement. Historically, the volume of undocumented migration is uncorrelated with the size or budget of the Border Patrol. According to a recent assessment by the National Academy of Sciences, studies of migrant behavior “generally show that rising enforcement has little deterrent effect on undocumented migration,” which instead reflects the economic trends in Mexico and the United States and ongoing opportunities for legal entry to the U.S.
Demand for labor plummeted in the United States during the Great Recession, of course. That was especially the case in residential construction, which had been a key driver of migration beforehand. Between 2007 and 2010, Hispanics lost 764,000 jobs in the construction industry alone. Despite America’s recession, however, economic conditions in Mexico did not deteriorate very much. Although Mexican exports to the U.S. initially sagged, after 2009 they surged to surpass the 2008 level by 22 percent on strong sales of oil, tourism, crops and manufactured products, allowing many Mexicans to stay home rather than leave for the U.S. Mexican labor force growth has also slowed dramatically because of a sharp drop in fertility over the past two decades. That contributed to a rise in education levels among young Mexicans, who increasingly see opportunities at home.
Although labor demand continues in agriculture and other U.S. sectors, it has increasingly been fulfilled by legal temporary workers, whose entries rose to a record 517,000 in 2010. Permanent legal immigration, meanwhile, has averaged 165,000 entries per year since 2008. With so many opportunities for legal entry, slowing labor force growth and steady employment in Mexico, and stagnant labor demand in the United States, illegal migration has effectively ceased.
Net zero migration doesn’t just mean undocumented migrants are staying in Mexico; it also means those already here aren’t going home, in large part because the increase in border enforcement did have a very real effect, just not the intended one. Rising border enforcement naturally drove up the costs and risks of border crossing, and migrants quite logically decided to stop crossing the border – not by remaining in Mexico but by hunkering down and staying in the United States once they had made it across.
From 1986 to 2006 the probability of returning to Mexico within a year of illegal entry fell from 60 percent to around 15 percent. Instead of slowing the rate of undocumented entry, therefore, the militarization of the border reduced the rate of undocumented departure, creating the present stalemate. Undocumented Mexicans are no longer coming to the United States, but those already here are increasingly unlikely to leave.
With illegal migration stopped, temporary legal migration at record levels, and legal permanent immigration running between 150,000 and 200,000 people per year, the only real issue remaining for immigration reform is what to do about the well-rooted population of 11 million residents already here.
The longer Americans put off the day of reckoning, the worse it will be. Undocumented migrants now make up a large share of America’s most rapidly growing minority group. Among all migrants from Latin America, around 40 percent are currently undocumented, but the figure is 58 percent for Mexicans and even greater for Central Americans, whose undocumented ranks continue to edge up slightly.
Of the 11 million undocumented residents now present, upwards of 3 million entered as children. They grew up here, speak English and have graduated from high school, and the vast majority have stayed out of trouble. Against the odds many have even attended college. Yet until the burden of illegality is lifted from their shoulders, they have nowhere to go in the legitimate economy of the only country they know.
Among those who became undocumented as adults, most have jobs, lives, houses and children born in the United States. For these people the only humane and practical course of action is an earned legalization program in which immigrants are granted temporary legal status and allowed to become permanent legal residents once they have fulfilled certain criteria, such as taking courses in English, studying U.S. history, establishing a history of employment, consistently paying taxes and having a clean criminal record.
Once they have satisfied these criteria, they can be levied a fine to pay their debt to society and allow them to get on with their lives. For years, conservatives have argued that reform must be put off until the border is “under control.” With illegal migration at net zero, that moment has arrived. Unless we take such action soon, we are in grave danger of building a new Latino underclass in the United States.
PHOTO: A group of recently deported immigrants stand near the double steel fence that separates San Diego and Tijuana at the border in Tijuana, December 10, 2011. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes