Where have all the Mexicans gone?

While U.S. politicians continue to argue about illegal immigration, the problem has mysteriously begun to disappear.

 John Moore/Getty Images

John Moore/Getty Images

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When I was a boy, my grandfather often took me to a small lake, where he kept a boat stashed in the pines and we would jig for pickerel. This was northern Manitoba, a place so remote that if we travelled north, the next road would be Russian. Nonetheless, my grandfather feared that this secluded spot deep in the vastness of Canada’s wilderness would inevitably be overrun by Chinese immigrants. He would survey the quiet lake, and say, “One day, this will all be rice paddies.”

My grandfather’s fear was inexplicable. He was an immigrant himself, from Ireland, who had carved out a piece of that northern bush for his own; not to grow rice, but a green lawn of clover. Perhaps it was a primal instinct to “get his,” then jealously guard it.

In the United States, this same fear of newcomers, especially from Mexico, has dominated politics for a long time. When George W. Bush came to office, there were more than 400,000 illegal migrants crossing their southern border every year. His response was the controversial border wall. President Barack Obama tried immigration reform, but was unable to find bipartisan support. He bypassed legislators with an executive action to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants. But it was reported this week that the plan has derailed, following a federal court injunction from Texas and 25 other states. Few issues have remained so persistently divisive.

In the meantime, the problem has mysteriously disappeared. According to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, total migration from Mexico has plummeted by 68 per cent over the last decade, and is now lower than arrivals from either China or India. The U.S. Border Patrol reports that illegal immigration has halved. And a study by the Pew Research Center shows that the total population of unauthorized migrants stopped growing in 2006, and has remained at approximately 11 million ever since.

Many on the left and right once believed this was an unstoppable flood of humanity. What changed? Historically, there has been a close correlation between illegal immigrant flows and economic growth. The U.S. economy entered the “Great Recession” in 2007, and the unemployment rate has improved slowly. But, even as the U.S. job market recovered, Mexican arrivals kept declining, suggesting that economics is not the reason.

Enhanced border security is a more likely cause. The U.S. Border Patrol has doubled in size since 2004, and billions of dollars have been spent on deploying drones and sensors along the frontier. Furthermore, as the wall went up, punishment was also increased. Before, if you were caught crossing the Rio Grande, you would simply be driven back. Now, you are held in detention, sometimes for weeks.

But there have also been fundamental demographic changes in Mexico. The birth rate has fallen from seven children per woman in the 1970s to just over two now. Other indicators, such as school enrolment and life expectancy, show that the incentives for leaving Mexico have declined significantly.

Unfortunately, while migrant numbers may be down, the political debate remains heated. After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election, many Republicans hoped to court traditionally Democratic Hispanic voters by appealing to their conservative Catholic social views. The prominence of candidates such as Cuban-American senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, as well as former Florida governor Jeb Bush (who is married to a Mexican-American and speaks fluent Spanish), suggests a shift in that direction. But the rhetoric from others hasn’t softened. Governors Scott Walker and Chris Christie, jealously guarding the American Dream, are taking an even harder line on immigration than Romney did. In contrast, 70 per cent of the public supports granting legal status to undocumented migrants, according to a recent Pew poll.

In Canada, the relatively small number of illegal immigrants has kept this issue out of the spotlight. However, according to Monica Boyd, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, this may change. Sociological research in other countries, such as Germany, shows that temporary worker programs that don’t allow for transition to permanent-resident status (such as the one Canada has implemented) create incentives for workers to outstay their visas, and often lead to a rapid increase in illegal migration.

Unlike the U.S., Canada fails to collect any data on illegal immigration whatsoever. Boyd explains: “There is virtually no way to come up with robust estimates on the number of undocumented migrants.” We have no idea how many people arrive illegally each year, and how many are living here already. If my grandfather were still alive, he’d seize on that fact, look at me forebodingly, and say, “Mark my words. Rice paddies. As far as you can see.”

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