Immigration Policy Is No Longer About Mexico

(Creative Commons photo via Flickr user Ray_from_LA)

If President Obama and Senator Marco Rubio are successful, we’ll soon have an immigration grand bargain, one that couples reform – heightened border security and a streamlined immigration process –with some kind of amnesty or other resolution to the question of the status of the roughly 11 million immigrants currently in the U.S. without authorization. Although both of those planks, neither one of which would be politically viable without the other, are primarily thought of in terms of Hispanic immigration to the U.S., they are in fact increasingly separate concerns.

For the past 30 years, the mass migration of Mexicans to the U.S. has been the dominating fact of immigration policy. Starting around 1980, Mexicans began moving northward in increasing numbers, legally and illegally. In just one year, 2000, 770,000 Mexicans entered the U.S. By 2010, there were 33 million Mexican-Americans in the U.S., a number that includes almost 12 million people born in Mexico.

The massive increase in unskilled Mexican laborers has provoked a crisis in American immigration policy. The federal government failed to enforce its own border laws. It has also sent away thousands of job-seeking scientists, engineers, doctors, and other professionals trained in American schools, as the treatment of high-skilled labor has been held captive to the larger struggle over immigration.

Not too long, however, after the influx of Mexicans peaked in its intensity and significant pro-immigrant protests took place in major U.S. cities from Chicago to Los Angeles 2006, the mass migration began to dwindle, a fact that is not yet reflected in the dialogue about immigration policy in Washington.

Last year, the Pew Hispanic Center reported that not only had the rate of Mexican immigration dropped steeply from its previous levels, but that on net there might be more migration from the U.S. to Mexico than the other way around. Although Pew was cautious and conservative in its own conclusions, the data taken as a whole indicate that the days of mass Mexican immigration may be over.

A few developments support that conclusion. One is the subpar performance of the American economy. The recession and subsequent stagnation have sidelined millions of American workers, and likely also discouraged many Mexicans who would have come to the U.S. if more opportunities for work were present. Another likely factor is the stepped-up level of border security over the past few years, and the boost in immigration law enforcement that has taken place at both the federal and state levels.

But it’s likely that the most important causes of declining Mexican immigration, especially for the near future, have been developments in Mexico itself. Mexico’s economy appears to have rebounded from the recession much better than America’s did. The current unemployment rate is 4.47 percent, significantly lower than America’s 7.9 percent. In November, the Financial Times called Mexico the “new ‘it’ Latin American economy,” and declared that “the country is no longer a security-problem-with-an-economy. It is now seen as an economy-with-a-security-problem.” The Economist noted that the country would soon be among the top 10 world economies, thanks to low inflation, increasingly cheap credit, and increased oil production, among other factors.

Perhaps even more important than Mexico’s economy, though, has been its demographics. The country has undergone a significant demographic shift, and might simply have fewer people to emigrate than it once did:

As the Economist reported, Mexico’s aging population means that young folks who might have emigrated in previous generations are needed at home now, or will be in the future:

Pew reports that Mexicans who have been deported from the U.S. to their home country are significantly less likely to want to return to the U.S., a telling fact about the relative prospects for poor Mexicans in both countries.

Of course, Mexicans are not the only people immigrating to the U.S. on a yearly basis, and not all illegal immigrants are Mexican (in fact, only about 55 percent are). But the end of the mass Mexican-U.S. migration, if indeed it has ended, should clarify the goals for immigration policy going forward, as the situation is normalized and the prospects for enforceable immigration laws become much more favorable.

America has always seen immigrants come in waves. Undoubtedly there will be more waves of newcomers in the future, perhaps from Asia, the Middle East, or parts of Latin America besides Mexico. But they won’t be coming from a country that’s sharing a border with the U.S. that allows for relatively easy illegal access. It’s time to think more carefully about what kind of immigration policy we would want if we had better control of it.

Nearly 90 percent of the illegal immigrants currently living in the U.S. have been here for at least seven years, according to the Center for American Progress. At this point, what their residency means for American society and commerce is broadly understood, in important respects. Although there would be serious economic and societal repercussions to implementing an amnesty or path to citizenship for those folks, we have enough experience now to be able to guess what the resulting trends will be.

For the potential future waves of immigrants, though, we have the responsibility – and luxury – of determining if and how we want to welcome them to America. What is the level and mix of immigration that would best serve both U.S. interests and the needs of those searching for a better life? And what are we prepared to do to enforce the law? The U.S. hadn’t answered these questions before Mexicans started arriving in huge numbers in the 1980s. It would be better to be prepared before the next time.

Joseph Lawler is editor of RealClearPolicy. He can be reached by email or on twitter.

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