40-year wave of Mexican migration recedes, as illegal immigration ebbs

The net flow of Mexicans into the US has come to a standstill and may even have reversed, a Pew Hispanic Institute report finds. Many factors contribute to the decline of illegal immigration from Mexico.

John Russell/Reuters
A view of Nogales, Mexico is seen from Nogales, Arizona in this photo taken in April 2010. A new study has revealed that the net flow of Mexicans into the US has come to a standstill, and may even be reversing.

Mexico, source of the largest wave of immigrants from a single country in United States history, is no longer a net exporter of its residents.

After some 40 years, the flow of Mexicans southward into the US has come to a standstill and may even have reversed, according to a new report from the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Institute.

“More people are going back to Mexico from the United States than coming here from Mexico,” says D’Vera Cohn, a senior writer at the institute and one of the report's authors. “This seems to be the first decrease since the Mexican immigration wave started in the 1970s.”

The Mexican population in the United States peaked at a net 12.6 million in 2007. By 2011, it had fallen to 12 million.

The report analyzed data from five Mexican government sources and four US government sources, including census records and community and population surveys from both countries. Its finding: The net decline in the Mexican immigrant population is almost entirely driven by a decline in the number of illegal immigrants entering the US. The number of legal immigrants from Mexico has stayed the same.

Mexicans make up about 58 percent of an estimated 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States. Nearly 40 million immigrants – legal and illegal – live in the US, and Mexicans account for 30 percent of that total.

The standstill in Mexican immigration seems to be a result of the weakened US economy in which jobs are harder to find, heightened border control, greater danger crossing the border illegally, and a rise in deportations. Other factors include an improved Mexican economy and a decline in birthrates in Mexico.

“There has been a decrease in apprehensions at the border, which points to the fact that fewer people are crossing the border,” says Pew's Ms. Cohn.

In 2005, more than 1 million Mexicans were taken into custody trying to cross the US border. By 2011, that number decreased by more than 70 percent.

Meanwhile, deportations of illegal Mexican immigrants have jumped sharply. In 2010, nearly 400,000 unauthorized immigrants were deported – 73 percent of them Mexicans.

Although many Mexican immigrants who have been deported say they plan to try to return to the US, a rising share say they won’t.

A survey by Mexican authorities found that 20 percent of repatriated labor migrants said they would not return to the US in 2010, as opposed to just 7 percent who said the same thing in 2005, according to the Pew study.

The Pew report's release comes at an especially charged time. On Wednesday, the US Supreme Court will hear arguments concerning the constitutionality of Arizona's tough immigration law, which among other things allows state and local law-enforcement officials to check the immigration status of people they stop.

That 2010 law in the border state of Arizona is just one possible factor contributing to the standstill in Mexican immigration, says Cohn. 

“This is one of the many changes that could be a factor,” says Cohn, who declined to speculate further. “We try not to dip our toes into the policy waters.” 

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