Latino Immigration to the U.S. Could End This Year

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Obama's tough immigration policies and a worsening U.S. economy are already bringing some Latin states down to a net of zero migrants

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A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle near the Rio Grande / AP

Looking ahead to the new year ahead of us, these next two weeks I want to look at important developments affecting Latin America that are worth keeping a close eye on in 2012. The first is the changing nature of immigration.

The flow of immigrants from Latin America to the United States, a constant and often accelerating trend of the last three decades, slowed in 2011. The most prominent was the change from Mexico. New arrivals fell off a cliff, with apprehensions at the border hitting their lowest levels in seventeen years. The drop is so great that Doug Massey, head of the Mexican Migration Project (a long term survey of Mexican emigration at Princeton University), claims that for the first time in sixty years, Mexican migration to the United States has hit a net zero.

Though Mexico is the single largest source of migrants to the United States, providing roughly a third of all newcomers, they weren't the only change. Anecdotal evidence at least suggests that many Brazilian migrants - which once numbered around one million - started heading home as well. Unemployment fell to all time lows, and numerous articles pointed out the labor scarcities both for high and low skilled workers.

There are many reasons behind these trends, some general, some country specific. Many point to the Obama administration's rather tough immigration policy as one reason for the decline. A record-breaking 400,000 immigrants were deported last year, and immigration prosecutions increased almost eighty percent along the U.S-Mexico border in the last four years. For Mexico, others speculate that the rise of organized crime and violence along the border may deter some from contemplating the journey (though studies, such as that done by Jezmin Fuentes et al., suggest this may be less of a deterrent than many claim).

An important factor is the weak U.S. economy. With unemployment rates hovering at just over eight percent, there are fewer jobs for natives and migrants alike. This has occurred at a time when many of their home countries are growing steadily - at a decent 4 percent regional average clip, and much more in particular countries and economic strongholds. Better job opportunities in the region broadly -- but particularly in Brazil -- encouraged many to return home, and kept others from leaving at all.

Looking ahead, a U.S. economic recovery would recreate the pull north for Latin Americans seeking to improve their lot. If the Chinese economy stumbles this too could slow returns, or push more migrants north (especially from Brazil, which counts China as its largest trading partner). Meanwhile, flows from Central America are likely to continue as long as economic opportunities there remain scarce. The real question is Mexico. There, demographics have already shifted, with fewer Mexicans coming of age and entering the work force each year. As a result, the Mexican immigration boom of the 1990s and early 2000s is unlikely to be repeated ever again.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Shannon K. O'Neil

Shannon K. O'Neil is the Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She blogs at "Latin America's Moment."

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