North of the U.S.-Mexico border, Republican presidential candidates are talking tough on illegal immigration, with one proposing perhaps in jest an electrified fence to deter migrants. But data from both sides of the border suggest that illegal immigration from Mexico is already in fast retreat, as U.S. job shortages, tighter border enforcement and the frightening presence of criminal gangs on the Mexican side dissuade many from making the trip. Mexican census figures show that fewer Mexicans are setting out and many are returning leaving net migration at close to zero, Mexican officials say. Arrests by the U.S. Border Patrol along the southwestern frontier, a common gauge of how many people try to cross without papers, tumbled to 304,755 during the 11 months ended in August, extending a nearly steady drop since a peak of 1.6 million in 2000.
The scale of the fall has prompted some to suggest that a decades-long migration boom may be ending, even as others argue that the decline is only momentary. "Our country is not experiencing the population loss due to migration that was seen for nearly 50 years," Rene Zenteno, a deputy Mexico interior secretary for migration matters, has said. Douglas Massey, an immigration scholar at Princeton University, said surveys of residents in Mexican migrant towns he has studied for many years found that the number of people making their first trip north had dwindled to near zero. "We are at a new point in the history of migration between Mexico and the United States," Massey said in a Mexico City news conference in August hosted by Zenteno.
Experts in Mexico say the trend is primarily economic. Long-standing back-and-forth migration has been thrown off as the U.S. downturn dried up jobs in construction and restaurants, for example that once drew legions of Mexican workers. About 12.5 million Mexican immigrants live in the United States, slightly more than half without papers, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. These days, Mexicans in the United States have discouraging words for loved ones about prospects for work up north. U.S. contractors who used to recruit in Mexico likewise have little to offer. "What stimulates migration is the need for workers," said Genoveva Roldan, a scholar at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "Right now, the migrant networks are functioning to say, 'Don't come there's no work.' "
Juan Carlos Calleros, a researcher at Mexico's National Migration Institute, said the agency's surveys have found that a large share of Mexican migrants coming home on their own or sent back by the Border Patrol had spent just a month or two on U.S. soil and returned because they had no work. Alongside the bleak jobs picture is a trek that has grown riskier and more expensive because of stepped-up enforcement on the U.S. side, a crackdown that at the same time has prompted many migrants to stay in the United States rather than try to cross back and forth. Migrants also cite an increasingly hostile political climate north of the border, as expressed in state laws targeting undocumented immigrants.