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 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT