Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past couple of weeks, it’s been impossible to escape the coverage and (well-deserved) acclaim for Damien Cave’s New York Times feature on the decline of Mexican immigration to the United States.
Cave tends to portray this trend as a positive development, arguing that economic progress in Mexico has decreased the incentives to work abroad. Still, it would be wise to hold off on the champagne. Many long-term forecasts by international organizations, including the BBVA Research and the World Bank, suggest that Mexican migration and remittances are here to stay.
Drawing on research from Princeton University’s Mexican Migration project and the Pew Hispanic Center, Cave explains that Mexican migration to the United States is currently at a historical low. A report published in February by the Pew Center placed the total number of illegal immigrants from Mexico at 6.5 million, down from 7 million four years earlier. Data from the Mexican Migration Project, which conducts household surveys throughout Mexico, also bear out these trends: Douglas S. Massey, co-director of the project, claimed that his research showed that interest in immigrating to the United States is at its lowest since the 1950s.
Why the decline? A variety of reasons, suggests Cave, the most prominent being economic and demographic changes in Mexico. Though Cave acknowledges that increased border control, stricter measures against illegal immigration, drug violence, and poor economic conditions in the United States all play a role, he argues that it is the “easing of demographic and economic pressures [that now] help keep departures in check.”
The dramatic decline in birth rate from 7.3 children per woman in 1962 to 2.1 children in 2005 has severely reduced the number of job seekers. Educational opportunities have increased with enrollment in tertiary education doubling since 1991, from 15% to 37%. And after a 6% drop in GDP after the global recession, the Mexican economy is projected to rebound this year with GDP growth rates of 4-5%. As a result, Cave suggests, the financial advantages of immigrating to the United States have significantly declined.
That being said, these successes are only half the story. Mexico’s GDP has been on the rise since the 1960s, but immigration has only begun to fall in the mid-2000s. If this decline is a long-term trend, it is one that is only started and whose effects remained obscured by a global recession and its effect on the US economy.
Furthermore, even as the number of immigrants crossing the border has declined, populations of immigrants already in the country have been stagnant. Even if the financial incentives have changed to discourage Mexican immigration, these changes have not occurred to such a great extent that migration flows are reversing, or that the economic advantage of working in the US are disappearing.
According to a report released last month by BBVA Research, the analyst branch of the multinational Spanish banking corporation, remittances to Mexico are projected to rise 5.3% in 2011 and 9.8% by the year 2012. By 2013 or 2014, they could once again reach the record highs of 2007: 23.2 billion. Although unemployment in the United States has been slow to grow (particularly in the immigrant-heavy construction sector), long-term trends suggest that the economy is on the road to recovery, and with it, economic opportunities for the immigrant population. The World Bank notes that remittances to Latin American have already resumed growth after a sharp fall in 2009 and are poised to reach $69 billion in 2012. (For more on the relationship between remittances and development, see CGP’s previous coverage.)
Mexico’s economic successes have been celebrated as “highly positive developments” and for good reason. Still, it’s too soon to pop the cork. The mere fact that drug violence is one of the factors that discourages immigration suggests Mexico is far from becoming a stable, prosperous state. Moreover, remittances to Mexico are set to rebound from the global recession and likely to inflame debate for years to come. With an established community in the United States and reverse migration unlikely, the issue of Mexican immigration remains far from resolved.