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Tide Turns on Border Crossing

Miriam Jordan

Net migration from Mexico has plummeted to zero thanks to changing demographic and economic conditions on both sides of the border, a new study says, even as political battles over illegal immigration heat up and the issue heads to the U.S. Supreme Court.

After four decades that brought 12 million Mexican immigrants—more than half of them illegally—to the U.S., the curtain has come down on the biggest immigration wave in modern times.

"The net migration flow from Mexico to the United States has stopped and may have reversed," says the report, which is based on an analysis of U.S. and Mexican government data by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center.

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The standstill, according to the report, results from declining immigration from Mexico paired with a rising number of people returning south from the U.S. Those trends recently converged, and between 2005 and 2010 about as many Mexicans left the U.S. as flocked here.

Between 2005 and 2010, 1.4 million Mexicans migrated north of the border, fewer than half as many as in the previous five-year period. Meanwhile, the number of Mexicans and their children who returned to Mexico between 2005 and 2010 rose to 1.4 million, about double the number who went home between 1995 and 2000, the report said. These trends suggest the return flow to Mexico surpassed arrivals to the U.S. in 2010 and 2011, the report adds.

"The pluses and minuses have evened out," said John Pitkin, a demographer with private consultancy Analysis and Forecasting, Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. "As many forces are pulling these people to Mexico as pulling them to the U.S."

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Mexican families have fewer mouths to feed as the country's birthrate has declined to near replacement level, or about 2.1, akin to that in the U.S., meaning Mexicans feel under less pressure to move north to find work. And they have more job opportunities at home than in the past.

"While wages are still relatively low in Mexico, employment growth has been quite strong for two years running, especially formal sector employment that comes with some fringe benefits," said Pia Orrenius, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

Other deterrents include the steep price charged by "coyotes"—smugglers hired to bring migrants into the U.S.—and drug cartels that sometimes kidnap migrants or force them to serve as drug carriers. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has increased deportations to a record level, and border arrests of migrants have hit a four-decade low, indicating far fewer people are trying to get into the U.S.

Once almost certain to try again after being caught, fewer migrants are making repeat attempts to enter the U.S., based on analysis of fingerprints collected by border-patrol officers who arrest them. According to a survey by Mexican authorities of repatriated immigrants, 20% in 2010 said they wouldn't return to the U.S., against 7% in 2005.

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Mexicans today constitute the lion's share of Latin American immigrants in the U.S., and account for about 30% of the 40 million immigrants in the country. The next-largest country, China, accounts for just 5%.

Mexican immigration to the U.S.—legal and illegal—peaked in 2000 at about 700,000, and began to slide after the housing bubble burst and jobs in construction and other sectors disappeared. By 2009, only 150,000 Mexicans had arrived here in a decline that hasn't reversed, according to the Pew analysis.

The Mexican population boom in the U.S. was first fueled by the end to decades of circular migration. Under the guest-worker "bracero" program, begun in 1942, thousands of Mexicans moved between the two countries to work on U.S. farms and railroads. The closure of the program by Congress in 1964 helped compel Mexican men to bring their families to settle in the U.S.

By 1970, the Mexican-born population in the U.S. totaled 760,000, but Canada, Germany and Italy still surpassed Mexico as the leading countries of origin. By 1980, Mexico was the top supplier of immigrants, with Mexicans numbering 2.2 million.

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U.S. economic expansion fueled heavy immigration in the 1990s as Mexicans found jobs in construction, service and other sectors. For instance, Mexicans were instrumental in turning Arizona into a fast-growing state and its capital Phoenix into the country's fifth-largest city. "It is logical that the supply of Mexican labor helped fuel Arizona's growth," said Dennis Hoffman, professor of economics at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.

A strong economic recovery in the U.S. could rekindle some Mexican immigration, but many scholars believe the influx is unlikely to ever be as large again.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court begins a review of Arizona's anti-illegal immigrant law. That law, and similar ones drafted in other states, has led some undocumented Mexicans to go home. Lawmakers should take the shift into account to ensure policies reflect current reality, said Roberto Suro, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California."We have turned the page in terms of migration," he said. "We haven't turned the page yet in terms of the policies."

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