What a Slowdown in Mexican Immigration May Mean For The Future of American Metros

4.25.12 | Today the Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on the constitutionality of a controversial 2010 Arizona law that expands the power of state and local governments to enforce immigration provisions. The decision is expected to have broad implication for immigration policy going forward and for similar measures on the table in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Utah.

We also heard this week that net immigration to the United States from Mexico has come to a halt, according to a new report out this week from the Pew Hispanic Center.

The analysis found that between 2005 and 2010, 1.4 million Mexicans immigrated to the U.S. and about 1.4 million Mexican immigrants and their U.S. born children moved back to Mexico. These numbers are a marked change from a five year period a decade earlier when between 1995 and 2000 about 3 million Mexicans immigrated to the U.S. and just under 700,000 Mexicans and their U.S. born-children moved from the U.S. to Mexico.

The result is the first decrease in the population of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. from Mexico in several decades. In 2011, about 6.1 million Mexicans were living here illegally, down from a peak of nearly 7 million in 2007, findings show.

Authors Jeffrey Passel, D’Vera Cohn and Ana Gonzalez-Barrera attribute the standstill to a combination of factors:  “a weakened U.S. job market, heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations, the growing dangers associated with illegal border crossings, and changing economic and demographic conditions in Mexico.”

“We really haven’t seen anything like this in the last 30 or 40 years,” Passel, senior demographer at Pew told the New York Times.

Though experts are hesitant to call a definitive end to the largest wave of immigration in our history, advocates argue that current reform efforts, like the one in Arizona, that focus primarily on border control are misguided. Instead, they say we should focus on comprehensive immigration reform and helping the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S.

In a discussion on this blog back in July, BRR Network Member Manuel Pastor told Barbara that experts agree on the basic components needed for reform: “legalization of most of the undocumented who are here, tighter controls and verification of immigration status for employment, and some new method for insuring that we have labor flows — of both skilled and lesser-skilled — in the future (so we don’t have the sort of suppressed demand that produced the current undocumented population).”

Pastor’s work examines how demographic shifts like rapid immigration are affecting us metros and regions. He continues:

But with federal legislation bottled up, localities have been trying to deal with this. Generally, it’s been municipalities and states, with some going in the direction of New Haven — which made ID cards available for residents regardless of immigration status — or Georgia — which recently passed legislation perhaps more restrictive than what Arizona passed. There are very few metropolitan efforts, although we have seen some of the major metro mayors call for reform and Chicago, Denver, and San Jose have a number of very interesting metrowide efforts.

Research led by USC’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration which Pastor directs, finds that there could be big economic benefits to the state of California, for example, by legalizing the state’s 1.8 million undocumented Latino immigrants – benefits that would occur from higher wages, tax payments, job creation, and consumer dollars spent locally.

“People keep using our economic condition as an excuse to not do comprehensive immigration reform,” Pastor said in the LA Times when the study was released. “It’s just the opposite: What we need to do to right our economy and move forward is create a path to legalization.”

Writing at The Center for American Progress, Daniel Wagener flagged the lower Mexican birthrates cited in the pew report as an important trend to watch in the coming years.  “Lower Mexican birthrates mean that in the future there will be fewer people available to immigrate, likely making the current reduction permanent. A typical Mexican woman was expected to have more than seven children in 1960, but by 2009 that number dropped to just more than two. This will greatly decrease the number of young workers seeking to come to the United States.”

Photo by Mary Anne Enriquez

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