Jul 122011

Many people in the USA continue to blame undocumented Mexican immigrants for the country’s unemployment problems. These complainers do not seem to realize that the flow of undocumented Mexicans across the border has slowed to barely a tickle.

The total number of Mexican immigrants peaked at about 550,000 in 2006 [see chapter 26 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico). That year over one million entered the USA and just under half a million returned to Mexico. With the economic recession and higher unemployment, the figure dropped to 203,000 by 2008. According Dr. Douglas S. Massey, co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University, the flow of undocumented immigrants from Mexico may have stopped altogether. He states in a July 6, 2011 article in The New York Times by Damien Cave that, “For the first time in 60 years, the net traffic has gone to zero and is probably a little bit negative.”

While there are no hard data to back up Dr. Massey’s claim, the Pew Hispanic Center and most other experts think that net immigration of Mexicans, particularly undocumented migrants, to the USA has declined dramatically in recent years.

The New York Times article cited above suggests that the most important reasons for this observation are improved employment and educational opportunities in Mexico, rising border crimes, and reduced fertility levels in Mexico. It also mentions stricter US border enforcement, the greater danger and expense of illegal crossing, and tougher state immigration laws such as those in Arizona and Georgia.

The article also points out that the US Consulate in Mexico has changed its procedures, making it significantly easier for Mexicans to get temporary work visas (H-2A) as well as tourist visas. While this might reduce the number of undocumented immigrants, it undoubtedly has increased the number of both legal and total immigrants. Obviously some of those entering the USA with a temporary work or tourist visa might overstay their visa and become undocumented.

Scattergraph of US unemployment and net Mexican migration

Scattergraph of US unemployment and net Mexican migration Credit: Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved

It is interesting to us that The New York Times article says very little about the impact of very high US unemployment rates on the rate of immigration. Our analysis of data between 1990 and 2009 indicates that there is a strong negative correlation between the US unemployment rate and net Mexican immigration to the USA (see graph, r = -0.8, significant at the 95% level). While the reasons for reduced immigration cited in the article are all valid factors, it still remains to be seen if immigration will jump back up to about half a million a year when, and if, jobs in the USA become plentiful again and unemployment rates drop to the relatively low levels of 1998–2006.

Migration between Mexico and the USA is the focus of chapters 26 and 27 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Explore the book using Amazon.com’s Look Inside feature; buy your copy today!


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