Home Again in Mexico: Illegal Immigration Hits Net Zero

Sara Miller Llana, Christian Science Monitor, April 8, 2012

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One million Mexicans said they returned from the US between 2005 and 2010, according to a new demographic study of Mexican census data. That’s three times the number who said they’d returned in the previous five-year period.

And they aren’t just home for a visit: One prominent sociologist in the US has counted “net zero” migration for the first time since the 1960s.

Experts say the implications for both nations are enormous—from the draining of a labor pool in the US to the need for a radical shift in policies in Mexico, which has long depended on the billions of dollars in migrant remittances as a social welfare cornerstone.

“The massive return of migrants will have implications at the micro and macro economic levels and will have consequences for the social fabric . . . especially for the structure of the Mexican family,” says Rodolfo Casillas, a migration expert at the Latin American School of Social Sciences in Mexico City.

The trend began with a weaker economy in the US. But even if a stronger one were to pull many Mexicans back to the US, the new pattern could persist. Migrants—and the experts who study them—say they are deterred by state laws in the US that have fueled anti-immigrant sentiment, tougher US-border enforcement, and border violence.

So, many Mexicans simply stay put. And now, the human calculus of possibility means they can stay put—or at least are more able to than their parents, who turned the US-Mexican border corridor into the busiest in the world. Today in Mexico there is greater access to education, growing per capita income, and lower fertility rates—all making a life here more viable. In turn, a life in the shadows of the US, separated from family often for years, is less palatable.

“The calculation is finally making people come back and decide to stay in Mexico,” says Agustin Escobar, a demographer at the Center for Research in Social Anthropology in Guadalajara, Mexico.

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At the macroeconomic level, Douglas Massey, founder of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University, has documented what he calls “net zero” migration. The population of undocumented immigrants in the US fell from 12 million to approximately 11 million during the height of the financial crisis (2008-09), he says. And since then, Mexicans without documents aren’t migrating at rates to replace the loss, creating a net zero balance for the first time in 50 years.

Mexican census and household surveys analyzed by Mr. Escobar, who is with the Binational Study on Mexican Migration, suggest migrants leaving Mexico fell from more than a million in 2005 to 368,000 in 2010.

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Mexico has transformed from a relatively poor country to one that is largely “middle class” in attitude and consumption, reports Luis Rubio in “Mexico: A Middle Class Society,” which he co-wrote. The report links this, among other factors, to fertility rates, trade openness to cheap imports, and new access to credit. “That is why there are so many Wal-Marts everywhere,” Mr. Rubio says.

But another factor that has helped reduce poverty is remittances. Migrants abroad sent $21.27 billion back home in 2010, according to Mexico’s central bank. And while Mexico has long developed programs to take advantage of such resources, with its 3-for-1 program, for example, which matches funds sent back to communities for local development, it is not prepared for a sustained change in migration patterns, says Rodolfo Zamora Garcia, an economist in Zacatecas State who studies migration and remittances.

“There is no public policy in Mexico to address the massive return of migrants or the reinsertion of them back into their communities,” says Mr. Zamora.

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