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Net migration from Mexico has stopped - now what?

Source: Pew Hispanic Center

The largest wave of migration to the United States from any single country in the nation's history appears to be over. For now, at least.

Today, the Pew Hispanic Center released a report that puts together years of U.S. and Mexican data and corroborates earlier news reports that Mexican immigrants aren't only coming to the United States in far lesser numbers, but that some are leaving, too. And that together, these two trends have brought overall Mexican migration to the U.S. to a net standstill. From the report:

The net standstill in Mexican-U.S. migration flows is the result of two opposite trend lines that have converged in recent years. During the five-year period from 2005 to 2010, a total of 1.4 million Mexicans immigrated to the United States, down by more than half from the 3 million who had done so in the five- year period of 1995 to 2000.

Meantime, the number of Mexicans and their children who moved from the U.S. to Mexico between 2005 and 2010 rose to 1.4 million, roughly double the number who had done so in the five- year period a decade before.

While it is not possible to say so with certainty, the trend lines within this latest five-year period suggest that return flow to Mexico probably exceeded the inflow from Mexico during the past year or two.

Which is a very big deal. Approximately 30 percent of all current U.S. immigrants - 12 million people altogether - were born in Mexico, according to Pew. In terms of sheer numbers, if not percentage, the wave of immigration from Mexico that occurred in the last century far exceeded that from any country in U.S. history, even from Ireland and Germany in the 19th century.

The factors for the drop-off are broader than one might suspect, and immigration enforcement isn't at the top of the list. The Mexican census numbers cited tally returns from the U.S. between 2005 to 2010, during the worst of the recession in the U.S., but before strict measures like Arizona's SB 1070 and other state laws that encouraged "self-deportation."

The overall result appears to be that of many factors, among them the weak U.S. economy (and the particularly hard-hit construction sector), tighter border enforcement, rising deportations, and the increasingly risky clandestine trip across the border. South of the border, factors include a long-term decline in Mexico’s birth rate that has resulted in fewer young people of peak migration age, along with improving economic conditions in Mexico.

Of the estimated 1.4 million people who have left the U.S. for Mexico since 2005 (including about 300,000 U.S.-born children) most did so voluntarily, according to the report. But data suggests that rising deportations may play a role also: Estimates based on government data from both the U.S. and Mexico suggest that 5 percent to 35 percent may not have returned voluntarily. Also interesting is Mexican data that suggests a growing number of deportees don't wish to return to the United States after being sent back, more than in previous years.

So what next? The trend may or may not last, depending on the U.S. economy, which could still bring back Mexican job seekers if and when it rebounds. But if they don't come back in big enough numbers, it could leave U.S. employers in some sectors accustomed to low-wage help in a bind, much as farm employers have been left in states like Alabama and Georgia, where strict new immigration laws have prompted many undocumented immigrants to leave the state.

The Christian Science Monitor reported on this recently:

The shrinking labor pool already is having an impact in agricultural fields scattered throughout the US, some say. For example, a University of Georgia report projects that, when 2011 figures are tallied, the state economy will show a $391 million loss due to farm labor shortages. Georgia is one of several states that – following Arizona's footsteps – recently passed laws aimed at illegal immigration.

Farmers across the country are experiencing near-term crop losses and scaling back operations, confirms Libby Whitley, president of Mid-Atlantic Solutions in Lovingston, Va. Her company handles visa applications for 600 employers who use temporary legal workers, mostly from Mexico. In the more than a dozen states that require businesses to confirm employment eligibility through the Internet-based federal program E-Verify, employers are in a corner. "The employers just really don't have an option," Ms. Whitley says. She adds that the farm labor workforce is 75 percent illegal.

The labor market would eventually adapt, but things could get complicated in some sectors, possibly prompting the need for temporary worker visas, which are available to employers but which many still refuse to use because of the cost and red tape involved.

The slowdown in Mexican migration doesn't mean that the U.S.-born Mexican American population is getting any smaller, though. That population continues to grow, according to the report. So has the number of legal immigrants from Mexico. While undocumented immigrants from Mexico decreased from around 7 million in 2007 to to 6.1 million last year, there was a slight increase in authorized immigrants from Mexico, from 5.6 million in 2007 to 5.8 million last year.

The complete Pew report charts the historic migration from Mexico to the U.S. during the 20th century and its equally historic slowdown. It can be downloaded here.