Skip to main content

Why wave of Mexican immigration stopped

By Jeffrey S. Passel and D'Vera Cohn, Special to CNN
April 26, 2012 -- Updated 1520 GMT (2320 HKT)
Migrant workers load cilantro in Colorado. The farmer said business is suffering because there are fewer Mexican workers.
Migrant workers load cilantro in Colorado. The farmer said business is suffering because there are fewer Mexican workers.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Researchers: As many Mexicans are leaving the U.S. as they are arriving from Mexico
  • This is first sustained decline in Mexican immigrants since the Great Depression, they say
  • Writers: Reasons might be jobs are now fewer in U.S. and Mexican birth rate is declining
  • Writers: Harsher penalities for border crossers, more deportations may be at play

Editor's note: Jeffrey S. Passel is a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center and a nationally known expert on immigration to the United States and the demography of racial and ethnic groups. D'Vera Cohn is a senior writer at the Pew Research Center. From 1985 to 2006, she was a reporter at The Washington Post, writing chiefly about demographic trends and immigration.

(CNN) -- To those of us who have studied the largest wave of immigration in history from a single country to the United States -- the four-decade-long influx of millions of Mexicans -- it seemed inconceivable that it would ever come to a halt. Yet, as our new Pew Hispanic Center report has shown, it has.

Our analysis of Mexican and U.S. data sources indicates that at least as many Mexicans and their families are leaving the United States as are arriving in the United States from Mexico. As a result, the Mexican-born population in the United States decreased from 12.6 million in 2007 to 12 million in 2011. This appears to be the first sustained decline in the number of Mexican immigrants since the Great Depression, and it is entirely because of a reduction in illegal immigration -- more going home and fewer coming. Today, we estimate that 51% of all Mexican immigrants living in the United States are unauthorized. In 2007, that figure was 56%.

Even with the recent decline, Mexicans are still by far the largest single immigrant group in the United States, accounting for 30% of the foreign-born. The population of Mexican immigrants in the United States is larger than that of most countries or states: 10% of Mexican-born people worldwide live in the United States. No other nation in the world has as many of its people living abroad as does Mexico.

D\'Vera Cohn
D'Vera Cohn
Jeffrey S. Passel
Jeffrey S. Passel

What caused the big immigration wave to stop? We think that many factors were at work, on both sides of the border. We cannot say how much of a role each of them played in tamping down migration to the United States and setting up the large reverse flows, but they all seem to have had an impact.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion

The sharp decline began about five years ago, around the time the U.S. housing market collapsed. Many construction jobs held by Mexican immigrants vanished. The continued weakness in the overall U.S. economy made it harder to find other jobs as well. Although the Great Recession has officially ended, the job market is not back to what it was.

During these same years, U.S. officials have heightened enforcement of immigration laws along the border and elsewhere. Unauthorized border-crossers have faced harsher penalties, and deportations have risen. We estimate that anywhere from 5% to 35% of the Mexicans who went home over the past five years did so involuntarily.

Six states, including Arizona, have passed laws intended to reduce unauthorized immigration. For these and other reasons, it has become more dangerous to try to cross the border from Mexico.

Developments on the Mexican side of the border also could be affecting migration flows. Mexico's economy, like that in the United States, fell into a deep recession from 2007 to 2009. But in 2010 and 2011, the Gross Domestic Product there grew at higher rates than the U.S. GDP, so Mexicans enjoyed a somewhat stronger recovery that may have encouraged some to stay home and others to return.

Another change in Mexico that is just beginning to affect migration streams is a steep decline in birth rates. In 1960, the fertility rate in Mexico was 7.3 -- meaning, on average, a Mexican woman could expect to have seven children in her lifetime. In 2009, it had dropped to 2.4. Declining birth rates have pushed up the median age of the Mexican population. This has meant that the age group in the prime years for emigration, 15- to 39-year-olds, is a shrinking share of Mexico's population.

Will the net standstill in migration from Mexico continue? We do not know, in part because of uncertainties about economic trends in both nations and future trends in enforcement policies. The decline in Mexican birth rates, however, does appear to be a long-term change that will limit the size of the pool of young people who are the most likely to emigrate.

But even if Mexican immigration does begin to rise again, consider how far it has fallen. From 1995 through 2000, we estimate that 3 million Mexicans moved to the United States, and nearly 700,000, including family members born in the United States, went home. From 2005 through 2010, we estimate that about 1.4 million Mexicans arrived, and the same number, including U.S.-born children, left. Considering everything, a return to the migration levels of the late 1990s now seems inconceivable.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of the writers.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT