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New study shows that immigrants dwindling from southern border

Gates on the U.S.-Mexico border were built to stifle illegal immigration and drug trafficking.
Gates on the U.S.-Mexico border were built to stifle illegal immigration and drug trafficking.
Associated Press

As the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this week concerning whether Arizona's tough anti-illegal immigration law is constitutional, the Pew Hispanic Center issued a report that shows the wave of people entering the nation across its southern border has slowed and, perhaps, begun to reverse.

More undocumented immigrants appear to be leaving the country than entering it. While this appears to be gently diffusing one of the most contentious political issues of the age, the real question is whether the U.S. economy will be able to meet labor demands that traditionally have been met by immigrant workers. If people are leaving the United States or staying away because of tough new laws that punish them and their children, rather than for economic reasons, the need may still exist, and the absence will be felt.

Most likely, however, the faltering U.S. economy has contributed mightily to the reduction of immigrants, whose cross-border migration was mostly motivated by desperation for a better life and better wages. Also, as the Pew study notes, the Mexican birthrate has dropped considerably over the last 50 years, reducing the number of young workers in search of jobs. Add the punitive laws and an increase in crime along the border, and there is little wonder why hard-working people would choose to stay at home despite the lack of opportunity.

One factor not in play is any dramatic improvement in the Mexican economy, which was hit hard by the economic downturn in 2008, and which hadn't exactly been booming before then, either. Gaps between the rich and the poor are enormous, with a poverty rate of 44.2 percent, according to Mexican government figures.

The Pew report said the number of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States fell from 7 million in 2007 to about 6.1 million in 2011. The number of legal residents, meanwhile, rose slightly to 5.8 million. The report also calculated that the Mexican migration over the last several decades was larger than that from any other nationality in U.S. history, when measured in actual numbers. However, Irish and German immigration in the 19th century was larger in terms of percentage of the total population.

The drop-off in illegal immigration does not mean Arizona's law should be ignored or treated lightly. Our hope is that the Supreme Court will rule it unconstitutional on several counts. It violates due process and usurps federal authority. Police are authorized to check the legal status of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally and arrest them without warrants. Arizona has had a unique problem with crimes committed by drug gangs crossing the border, but those problems do not justify violating the Constitution.

Arizona's law should end up as a defunct oddity in history books — an example of overreaction to a passing problem.