WASHINGTON – Apparently deterred by rising unemployment in the United States, the number of Mexican immigrants who crossed the border dropped sharply in the past year to the lowest level in a decade, even while undocumented workers already here are opting to stay.
The analysis of census data from both the U.S. and Mexican governments, being released Wednesday by the Pew Hispanic Center, highlights the impact of the economic downturn on Mexican immigrants, many of whom enter the United States illegally.
The study found that immigrants arriving from Mexico fell by 249,000 from March 2008 to March 2009, down nearly 60 percent from the previous year. As a result, the annual inflow of immigrants is now 175,000, having steadily decreased from a peak of 653,000 in 2005, before the bursting of the housing bubble dried up construction and other low-wage jobs.
The total population of Mexican-born immigrants in the U.S. also edged lower in the past year, from 11.6 million to 11.5 million, according to the study by Pew, an independent research group. Up to 85 percent of immigrants are believed to be in the country illegally.
Still, immigrants already in the U.S. are opting not to return to Mexico, because many of them are betting the economy will improve as well as perhaps hoping that immigration reform could soon pave the way for U.S. citizenship, said Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at Pew who co-authored the study.
According to the data, the level of Mexican migrants who return home from the U.S. and other countries each year — roughly 450,000 — has remained largely unchanged.
"There's not a lot in Mexico to go back to, because if anything the Mexican economy is doing worse," Passel said. "But also, in light of enforcement that has made it more dangerous and expensive to get into the U.S., once people get here, they're reluctant to leave."
Passel said while the immigration shifts may be temporary depending on the length of the U.S. recession, some of the effects could be longer-lasting. He noted that fewer Hispanics coming in the U.S. could further slow minority population growth here, since higher fertility levels among Hispanics are driving much of the recent increases.
Mexico's population is also graying and its labor force shrinking, which could mean a better jobs picture in that country due to less worker competition in the next five to 10 years. That could mean reduced immigration levels from Mexico to the United States even after the U.S. economy recovers, Passel said.
Among Pew's other findings:
—In 2008, the number of Mexicans apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol — 662,000 — was 40 percent below the peak of 1.1 million in 2004, reflecting in part the sharp decline in the number of new immigrants arriving into the U.S.
—Mexico is by far the origin of most U.S. immigrants, accounting for one-third of foreign-born residents and two-thirds of Hispanic immigrants. About one in 10 people born in Mexico now live in the U.S.
—The total number of apprehensions by the Border Patrol in 2008 — 724,000 — was at the lowest level since 1973. More than 90 percent of people detained by Border Patrol are Mexican.
The findings come as the Obama administration has pledged to take up immigration law this year. A key Democrat in the effort, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer has said he hopes to have a bill ready by Labor Day and that the way to get it passed is to be tough on future waves of illegal immigration.
Steven Camarota, a demographer at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington research group which calls for reduced immigration, said the findings demonstrate that tougher law enforcement can make a difference. Still, he said it will take a lot more than tighter border security to get comprehensive reform passed.
"Border control is just one piece of a larger enforcement puzzle, while amnesty is a different question," Camarota said. "It's unlikely there will be a sympathetic hearing in Congress for legalization of immigrants as long as unemployment remains high."