Skip to main content

Why wave of Mexican immigration stopped

By Jeffrey S. Passel and D'Vera Cohn, Special to CNN
updated 11:20 AM EDT, Thu April 26, 2012
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
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 8:52 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT