Where Have All the Mexicans Gone?

A sputtering economy solves illegal immigration.

President Barack Obama has succeeded in stopping the flood of undocumented aliens from south of the border. Bringing illegal immigration to a halt has had the unfortunate side effect of bringing the American economy to a halt. Or did the reverse happen?

It turns out that the way to make America unattractive to Mexicans is to make America more like Mexico, which has been marked by bailouts, crony capitalism, and economic stagnation for several decades. “The largest wave of immigration in history from a single country to the United States has come to a standstill,” begins a study by the Pew Hispanic Center. “After four decades that brought 12 million current immigrants—most of whom came illegally—the net migration flow from Mexico to the United States has stopped and may have reversed.”

“Net Migration from Mexico Falls to Zero—and Perhaps Less” notes that the Mexican-born U.S. population rose from below one million in 1970 to reach about twelve million today. The population shift is historic in several ways. The sheer numbers of the northward Mexican migration exceeds past mass migrations to the United States from Germany, Ireland, and points beyond. “The U.S. today has more immigrants from Mexico alone—12.0 million—than any other country in the world has from all countries of the world,” the report points out. Nearly six in ten immigrants to the United States come from Mexico, and about half of those Mexican immigrants are in the country illegally. Most Mexican immigrants, illegal and legal, live in two states: Texas and California. By way of comparison, about one in twenty-five Mexicans living in the United States settled in the northeast.

The numbers tell as much about Mexico as they do about the United States. One in ten Mexicans resides in the United States. The Pew Hispanic Center explains, “No other nation in the world has as many of its citizens living abroad as does Mexico, and 97% of them live in the U.S.” As the northward march has slowed, Mexico’s murder rate climbed and its birth rate descended. Crime, which might seem a plausible cause of departure, seems almost inversely correlated to the historic population shift. Pew cites the birth rate, which declined from 7.3 babies per Mexican woman in 1960 to 2.4 today, as one of several likely ingredients contributing to the migration moratorium. But the birth rate was in decline when the exodus peaked in the ’90s and ’00s.

So what’s causing Mexicans to stay in Mexico—and to return there from the United States?

We took their jobs after they took our jobs. The American demand for cheap labor slowed down and the supply of Americans eager to labor for cheap picked up. The old refrain, “Immigrants do the jobs Americans won’t do,” seems particularly preposterous in the new economic climate. The employment rate for 18 to 24 year olds, the demographic traditionally competing for low-skill, low-wage work, is 54.3 percent—the most anemic figure since the government began compiling the metric in 1948. It’s not just increased competition within the fields that immigrants traditionally dominate but a diminished supply of jobs in fields, such as construction, in which foreigners have been overrepresented. With the U.S. unemployment rate above eight percent for thirty-eight months and counting, what, precisely, are the jobs that Americans won’t do?

The colossal repatriation certainly does not stem from the enforcement of immigration laws. The number of border apprehensions reached 1.7 million in 2000, when immigration from Mexico not coincidentally peaked. Border apprehensions, reflecting America’s declining interest for immigrants and the American government’s declining interest in illegal immigrants, fell to just 286,000 last year. Deportations have increased, and Pew cites the enactment of several state laws cracking down on undocumented workers and the businesses that hire them. But the hostility of a few of the fifty states, and the deportation of a tiny percentage of illegal aliens, doesn’t add up to a reversal of a forty-plus-year trend. Declining American economic fortunes do.

The Pew Hispanic Center determines that “the trend lines within this latest five-year period suggest that return flow to Mexico probably exceeded the inflow from Mexico during the past year or two.” Obama didn’t slow the rise of the oceans or heal the planet. But he may have accomplished something even more miraculous: reversing the migration stream toward America from Mexico into a migration stream from America toward Mexico.

Americans will decide in November whether they approve of the policies that have led the United States here. Mexicans have already voted with their feet.

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