NYT: Grass is Greener On the Other Side of the Mexican Border Fence?

In recent months, immigration demographers have noticed that many foreign-born graduates of American universities, especially in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, are going back home to seek their fortunes. This is in part because we make it hard to stay here, but also because the business climate in their homelands – India and China, for example – have evolved to a point that American-trained STEM grads see better opportunities there than here. (See e.g.: Proposed Legislation Aims to Keep Foreign STEM Grads Here, MurthyBlog, 22.Jun.2011.) Some call this the “reverse brain drain,” because for decades, the best and brightest came here in pursuit of opportunities that weren’t available anywhere else. This worries the American high-tech companies that need a steady supply of STEM grads to maintain their competitive edge.

Perhaps U.S. employers in the construction sector, agriculture and landscaping, and the restaurant trade will begin to worry about a “reverse brawn drain,” in light of recent news that migration from Mexico is on the wane. According to the New York Times, immigration from Mexico has gone off a cliff, plunging to levels not seen since the 1950’s. (See “For Mexicans Looking North, a New Calculus Favors Home: Better Lives for Mexicans Cut Allure of Going North, by Damien Cave, New York Times, 06.Jul.2011.) Douglas Massey, of Princeton University’s Mexican Migration Project, told the Times that the flow of illegal immigrant traffic from Mexico has stopped, and “for the first time in 60 years, the net traffic has gone to zero and is probably a little bit negative.” As the Times further elaborated:

“The decline in illegal immigration, from a country responsible for roughly 6 of every 10 illegal immigrants in the United States, is stark. The Mexican census recently discovered four million more people in Mexico than had been projected, which officials attributed to a sharp decline in emigration.

“American census figures analyzed by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center also show that the illegal Mexican population in the United States has shrunk and that fewer than 100,000 illegal border-crossers and visa-violators from Mexico settled in the United States in 2010, down from about 525,000 annually from 2000 to 2004. Although some advocates for more limited immigration argue that the Pew studies offer estimates that do not include short-term migrants, most experts agree that far fewer illegal immigrants have been arriving in recent years.”

According to the Times, increased border enforcement and anti-immigrant measures at the state level have played a role in reducing the number of Mexicans illegally crossing the border, but this is far from being the whole story; life has improved in Mexico in some key respects, the article finds, making it a more attractive place to stay. For one thing, Mexican families are no longer as large as they once were, the Times reports, thanks to successful birth control efforts. This results in fewer job seekers who might otherwise try their luck north of the border. Meanwhile, the article continues, “per capita gross domestic product and family income have each jumped more than 45 percent since 2000.”

At the same time, the Times article points out, legal immigration from Mexico has been on the rise, providing additional channels for migration and employment that are far more secure than crossing the border illegally, which has become increasingly risky due to stepped-up enforcement along the southwestern border of the United States, and to dangerous criminal activity – trafficking in people and drugs – in the region.

In another article on this topic, the Orange County Register points out that the costs of illegal immigration have ballooned in recent years, even while the potential benefits have been shrinking. (See Study, Illegal Mexican Migration to U.S. in Decline, by Cindy Carcamo, The Orange County Register, 07.Jul.2011.) Thirty years ago, the article notes, an illegal Mexican immigrant could pay a smuggler $300 to get across the border to a place were jobs were plentiful; not so now:

“Today’s illegal Mexican immigrant pays up to $6,000 for a smuggler and contends with a dangerous journey, dominated by ruthless cartels, a reinforced border and menacing desert. For those who make it, there’s no guarantee of a job and there is a higher risk of detection and deportation than ever before.”

On the positive side, the Times cited improvements in quality of life – like wider availability of clean water, electricity, and trash collection services – and the expansion of educational opportunities as major factors that make potential Mexican émigrés think twice before heading north. A young student from the state of Jalisco told the Times that he planned to stay in Mexico and finish his industrial engineering studies at one of the new technical institutes established there.

This raises some interesting questions. As new state laws turn up the heat on illegal immigrants, will U.S. immigration authorities take the steps needed to ensure that American industries have a steady stream of legal immigrant labor to replace the illegal workers upon whom they have relied? Early indications suggest this will be the case. The Times notes that U.S. consular officials in Mexico are regularly approving H2A visas for agricultural laborers to come here even when they have lived illegally in the United States, and otherwise would be subject to the 3-year or 10-year bar on admission. It remains to be seen whether a sufficient volume of H2A visas could be processed yearly if the United States loses significant numbers of the illegal farm workers upon whom we currently depend.

By far the bigger and more intriguing question is whether the drop in illegal immigration from Mexico will allay the fears of Congressional representatives from the southwestern states – as well as their constituents – so that sealing the border is no longer seen as a mandatory precondition for supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Eventually, the rhetoric has to catch up to the facts, and one hopes the necessary changes in policy will not be far behind.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.