Mexico Is Getting Better, and Fewer Mexicans Want to Leave

Why amnesty is not likely to cause a flood of immigrants.

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A shopper pushes a cart with a television screen at a Wal-Mart store in Mexico City on November 17, 2011. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

Shortly after the new bipartisan immigration bill was released this week, one opponent, Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, said it contained "a fatal flaw:" the provision for a 10-year process through which some illegal immigrants could gain citizenship.

"It legalizes almost everyone in the country illegally, also known as amnesty, before it secures the border," Smith said. "As a result, the Senate proposal issues an open invitation to enter the country illegally."

Smith voices a common fear among border-security hawks: That any so-called "amnesty" or legalization plan will somehow spur more foreigners to make unauthorized dashes across the border. A recent poll by the Rasmussen company found that nearly half of respondents thought a pathway to citizenship would lead to more more illegal immigration.

But here's one thing that might allay those fears: Mexicans, who make up the plurality of illegal immigrants, are feeling better and better about their country, and fewer are interested in moving across the border.

Though an estimated 300,000 people still enter the U.S. illegally each year, that represents a precipitous fall from the first half of the decade, when the number was 850,000. In 2010, net migration to and from Mexico was approximately zero.

Part of the reason, of course, is the global economic downturn, which eliminated many of the low-wage job opportunities that Mexican immigrants might have come to the U.S. to seek.

But in addition to the U.S. becoming a less attractive destination, part of the explanation for the drop is that prospects in Mexico are actually looking up.

Even though Mexico is clearly still struggling, there are signs that the country is gradually improving. Crime is down in border cities like Ciudad Juarez. Mexico's fertility rate is falling and its population is aging, meaning there are fewer young workers scrambling for jobs (half of all Mexican immigrants are under age 33). For the first time in decades, Mexico has a fledgling middle class. Its GDP growth rivals Brazil's, and economically, some economists think the country is doing even better than the United States. According to the OECD, Mexicans are about as satisfied with their lives as people in Iceland or Ireland are.

For just one example, we can look at the mean "life today" score, in which Gallup asks respondents to think of a ladder with 10 steps -- with each next step representing an improved overall situation -- and rank their lives as being on one of the ten steps. According to that score, Mexico's mean "life today" score is 7.1. In the U.S., it's 7.0. By comparison, in 2007, that number was 7.2 in the U.S. and just 6.6 in Mexico. Here's the latest view from Gallup, with the two countries nearly identical in their average life rank:

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And here it is from 2006/2007, with a stark difference between the U.S. and Mexico:

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Mexicans are also more hopeful about the future these days. On average, Mexicans said their lives in five years would be a 7.6, using the ladder from the past example, and Americans said they would be a 7.9. In 2007, that difference was much larger -- 7.4 and 8.2, respectively. (At times, Mexicans have had even sunnier outlooks than Americans. In 2008, 80 percent of them said "yes" to the existential-sounding question, "Would you like more days like yesterday?" compared with 78 percent of people in the U.S.)

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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