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Home again in Mexico: Illegal immigration hits net zero

Tiny Tamaula is the new face of rural Mexico: Villagers are home again as the illegal immigration boom drops to net zero

(Page 2 of 5)

The trend began with a weaker economy in the US. But even if a stronger one were to pull many Mexicans back to the US, the new pattern could persist. Migrants – and the experts who study them – say they are deterred by state laws in the US that have fueled anti-immigrant sentiment, tougher US-border enforcement, and border violence.

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So, many Mexicans simply stay put. And now, the human calculus of possibility means they can stay put – or at least are more able to than their parents, who turned the US-Mexican border corridor into the busiest in the world. Today in Mexico there is greater access to education, growing per capita income, and lower fertility rates – all making a life here more viable. In turn, a life in the shadows of the US, separated from family often for years, is less palatable.

"The calculation is finally making people come back and decide to stay in Mexico," says Agustin Escobar, a demographer at the Center for Research in Social Anthropology in Guadalajara, Mexico.

'Net zero' migration

While the loud immigration controversy of recent years – with walls erected and sheriffs planning anti-immigrant armies – got the headlines, the powerful migration shift went on largely unnoticed.

Pedro Laguna's odyssey is a clear and common sign of the reverse calculus on the ground.

At the macroeconomic level, Douglas Massey, founder of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University, has documented what he calls "net zero" migration. The population of undocumented immigrants in the US fell from 12 million to approximately 11 million during the height of the financial crisis (2008-09), he says. And since then, Mexicans without documents aren't migrating at rates to replace the loss, creating a net zero balance for the first time in 50 years.

Mexican census and household surveys analyzed by Mr. Escobar, who is with the Binational Study on Mexican Migration, suggest migrants leaving Mexico fell from more than a million in 2005 to 368,000 in 2010.

Pedro Laguna contributed to that shift in balance when he moved from Georgia to Tamaula last summer with his wife and American-born children – ages 5, 7, 9, and 11 – after 20 years in the US.

By many measures, the Lagunas were pleased with American life. In their first US jobs – in poultry processing – they earned in two hours what they could earn in a day in Mexico (less than $15). They liked the rigorous schools, and their kids excelled – today their bookshelves are full of trophies from science, reading, and karate contests.

But with both parents working long hours, and on different shifts, "we were working the whole time," says Silvia, who often got just three hours of sleep a day.

Yet amid the financial crisis, something worse than the slog befell them: Plentiful jobs for illegals disappeared. Silvia lost her job at a plastic factory, which gave her more time with the kids. But Pedro's weekly pay of $340 from his construction job wasn't enough.

And the feeling of welcome changed, too. Beginning with Arizona, states began passing laws to crack down on illegal immigration. Tales of Mexicans sent home after getting stopped for speeding spread, and it even touched home: One family member was sent home to Tamaula, after being caught driving without a license, while his wife and children continue to live in Georgia. Desperate to avoid the same fate, Pedro stopped driving on national holidays to avoid police checks.


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