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:

lifetoday2012mean.png

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.)

Our neighbors south of the border are also more and more interested in staying put. In 2007, 21 percent of Mexicans said they wanted to move permanently to another country. Today, that number is 11 percent, the same as for U.S. residents:

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Of course, Mexico still faces a plethora of societal and economic challenges. Almost half its citizens live in poverty -- 11.7 million of them in extreme poverty, meaning they make the equivalent of less than $83 a month. Drug cartels sill run rampant. Banks there don't lend enough, which slows business growth. Prices are still too high because a handful of oligarchs control the country's largest industries.

Still, it seems like many of the people who would have liked to move to the U.S. have already done so. The New York Times recently reported on one nearly empty Mexican town where few would-be immigrants remain:

Homes await returning families, while dozens of schools have closed because of a lack of students. Here in El Cargadero, a once-thriving farm community of 3,000, only a few hundred people remain, at most.

Many in the anti-amnesty crowd have said the U.S. needs stronger border security before any pathways to citizenship can begin. But the border might actually already be secure enough . There are more border agents now than ever before, but border apprehensions in 2011 were at a 40-year low, at roughly 340,000 per year. (They ticked up by 20,000 last year, but that's still dramatically lower than the pre-recession level of one million or more annually.)

Meanwhile, stepped-up enforcement within the United States -- at worksites and elsewhere -- has led to a spike in deportations. Mexican residents interviewed by the Times said that with the current enforcement levels, the journey north is too arduous and expensive to be worth the potential pitfalls. Attempts to cross the border might pick up as the U.S. economy improves, of course, but so might the trend of Mexicans staying put if opportunities there proliferate.

What's more, surveys of Mexican immigrants have found that the prospect of work, rather than legal status, was the main motivation for crossing illegally in the 1990s and 2000s. A 2011 study in the journal "Public Purpose" found that the amnesty programs are associated with a decline in the number of border apprehensions, a proxy for crossing attempts. A 2001 study by the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank also showed that border apprehensions went down in the immediate aftermath of the implementation of an earlier amnesty program in 1986, and then simply returned to their previous, pre-amnesty levels:

If anything, IRCA reduced the number of illegal immigrants in the short run, perhaps because potential migrants thought that it would be more difficult to cross the border or to get a job in the United States after the law was passed. An amnesty program also does not appear to encourage illegal immigration in the long run in the hopes of another amnesty program.

About 80 percent of all illegal immigration to the U.S. comes from Mexico and Latin America. At least at the moment, the changing demographics and economic trade-offs between Mexico and the United States means that a path to citizenship won't necessarily cause Mexicans to rush across the border en masse. Many of them have plenty to look forward to at home.

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

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