SALT LAKE CITY — News about the flow of immigrants crossing the southern border into the United States regularly makes headlines.
But there’s another immigrant surge that is rarely noticed: the flow of both Americans and Mexicans crossing the border in the opposite direction, The Washington Post reported.
For the last five years, the number of undocumented immigrants from Mexico leaving the U.S. to return to Mexico has been higher than the number of undocumented immigrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico, according to the Pew Research Center.
And now the Post is reporting another trend in migration from the U.S. to Mexico: American citizens who are drawn to Mexico’s warm weather as a remote-work or retirement destination, or who are moving to Mexico along with their returning, undocumented parents.
Last month, Mexico’s statistics institute estimated that the U.S.-born population in Mexico had reached 799,0000 — a number that has quadrupled since 1990. The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City estimates the number is even higher, likely upwards of 1.5 million.
Of course, both of these trends in migration from the U.S. to Mexico involve only citizens of those two countries, and they don’t reflect the larger border crisis involving asylum-seekers from Central America who travel through Mexico to request entry to the United States.
In spite of stark images of caravans of Central American asylum-seekers crossing into Mexico, substantially more immigrants to Mexico — about 75 percent — are from the United States, according to the Post.
A long-standing trend
Migration from the U.S. to Mexico is part of a trend that researchers have been tracking for more than a decade. Between 2009 and 2015, one million Mexicans in the United States left for Mexico, according to the 2014 Mexican National Survey of Demographic Dynamics.
A 2015 Pew study found that undocumented immigration from Mexico to the U.S. had reached a “historic turning point” — more Mexicans returned to their home country between 2009 and 2014 than entered the United States.
In fact, the number of Mexican unauthorized immigrants living in the United States has declined so sharply over the past decade that they are no longer the majority of those living in the United States illegally, according to a new analysis of government data by the Pew Research Center released on Jun. 12.
At the same time that Mexican immigration decreased, there was an uptick in unauthorized immigration to the United States from other parts of the world. In 2017, there were 5.5 million non-Mexican unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., compared with 5.3 million in 2007, according to Pew.
While Mexicans still do remain a larger percentage of all unauthorized immigrants in the United States than those from any other country of birth, overall Mexicans now constitute only 47 percent of the share of U.S. unauthorized immigrants, according to Pew, the first time in half a century that they constitute less than a majority of U.S. unauthorized immigrants.
Why cross the border to Mexico?
The decline in Mexican migration to the U.S. was primarily fueled by economics, Heide Castaneda, associate professor at the University of South Florida, told the Deseret News in December. There was a sharp decline in Mexican migration in 2008 due to the recession, which eliminated millions of jobs in the U.S. that attracted undocumented immigrants.
“With the recession, there was just no draw of the U.S. job market, and the migration of low-wage workers since 2008 never fully recovered,” she said.
At the same time, the Mexican economy improved, giving people from Mexico less motivation to migrate to begin with.
On the other hand, the U.S.-born population that has immigrated to Mexico is a diverse group. Among them are Americans with non-Mexican ethnicity, including retirees and “digital natives who can work just as easily from Puerto Vallarta as Palo Alto,” according to the Post.
They also include nearly 60,000 U.S. born children returning with their Mexican-born parents who left the United States either by choice due to economic or cultural reasons or because they were deported.
A ‘cultural phenomenon’
American immigration is having a tangible impact on the ground in Mexico. American immigrants are “pouring money into local economies, renovating historic homes and changing the dynamics of Mexican classrooms,” according to The Post.
“It’s beginning to become a very important cultural phenomenon,” Marcelo Ebrar, Mexico’s foreign minister told The Post. “Like the Mexican community in the United States.”
American immigrants have been largely welcomed, The Post reported. In San Miguel — a colonial-era city in Mexico’s central highlands where 10 percent of the city’s residents are U.S. citizens — Thanksgiving is celebrated, restaurants have adopted “American timing” of serving dinner at 6 p.m., and Mayor Luis Alberto Villareal delivers his annual State of the Municipality address in both English and Spanish.
“Despite the fact that Donald Trump insults my country every day, here we received the entire international community, beginning with Americans, with open arms and hearts,” Villareal told the Post.
Mexican authorities told the Post that many of the Americans in Mexico are most likely undocumented, having overstayed their six-month visas. But the government has not stepped up enforcement.
“We like people who come to work and help the economy of the city — like Mexicans do in the United States,” Villareal told the Post.
Central American migration
While President Donald Trump is right that there is a surge of immigrants at the U.S. border trying to come into the United States, he regularly talks about Mexican immigrants, which doesn't reflect the reality on the ground.
Central Americans — especially from the three Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — have come to represent a bigger share of recent unauthorized arrivals to the United States, according to Pew.
Many travel through Mexico to seek asylum in the United States, a trend most powerfully exemplified by the migrant caravans that have descended upon the border over the past year.
In January, the Trump administration implemented “Remain in Mexico,” a pilot program requiring Central American asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico until their asylum status is granted.
But some experts say Mexico is not a safe harbor for immigrants. A July 2017 reportby Human Rights First states that immigrants face “acute risks of kidnapping, disappearance, sexual assault, trafficking and other grave harms in Mexico.”