Daniel W. Drezner

The most interesting international political economy news story I have read this year

The most interesting international political economy news story I have read this year

Your humble blogger is off at another conference again, so blogging will be intermittent for the rest of the week.  However, I wanted to highlight Damien Cave’s outstanding New York Times story on the decline of illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States.  The gist of Cave’s story: 

The extraordinary Mexican migration that delivered millions of illegal immigrants to the United States over the past 30 years has sputtered to a trickle, and research points to a surprising cause: unheralded changes in Mexico that have made staying home more attractive.

A growing body of evidence suggests that a mix of developments — expanding economic and educational opportunities, rising border crime and shrinking families — are suppressing illegal traffic as much as economic slowdowns or immigrant crackdowns in the United States….

Douglas S. Massey, co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton, an extensive, long-term survey in Mexican emigration hubs, said his research showed that interest in heading to the United States for the first time had fallen to its lowest level since at least the 1950s. “No one wants to hear it, but the flow has already stopped,” Mr. Massey said, referring to illegal traffic. “For the first time in 60 years, the net traffic has gone to zero and is probably a little bit negative.”

The decline in illegal immigration, from a country responsible for roughly 6 of every 10 illegal immigrants in the United States, is stark. The Mexican census recently discovered four million more people in Mexico than had been projected, which officials attributed to a sharp decline in emigration.

American census figures analyzed by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center also show that the illegal Mexican population in the United States has shrunk and that fewer than 100,000 illegal border-crossers and visa-violators from Mexico settled in the United States in 2010, down from about 525,000 annually from 2000 to 2004. Although some advocates for more limited immigration argue that the Pew studies offer estimates that do not include short-term migrants, most experts agree that far fewer illegal immigrants have been arriving in recent years.

The question is why. 

You’ll have to read the whole thing to find out the whys of this phenomenon.  Cave’s story is so good, however, that it’s worth detailing exactly why the story is so good: 

1)  It’s totally counterintuitive.  It flies in the face of the stylized facts about immigration in the U.S. ("we can’t control our borders!") as well as Mexico ("the country is falling apart!").  This story bursts every rhetorical bubble that exists in American political debate on this topic.   

 2)  It’s also counterintuitive in describing why this phenomenon has occurred.  Much of it is structural — changing economic circumstances in both countries — but policy shifts have mattered as well.  Those shifts cut across ideological lines:  dramatically loosened visa restrictions, combined with tougher enforcement, appears to have had some impact. 

3)  Cave relies adriotly on more academic analyses from the Pew Hispanic Center and the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton to back up his interviews and other reportage. 

4)  From a normative policy perspective, this is a win-win story.  As Doug Mataconis notes:

[T]hese are, of course, highly positive developments. That Mexico might stabilize politically and economically and become, if not as prosperous as Canada just yet, at least a far more prosperous southern neighbor than we’ve ever had is a development we should welcome and encourage. Not only because it will reduce cross-border illegal immigration, but also because a strong Mexican economy is good for the U.S. economy. 

 See Joe Klein and Matthew Yglesias on these points as well.  Indeed, it’s such good news that stories like this one might not trigger cable news debates about the dreaded (and mythical) NAFTA superhighway. 

[Doesn’t declining immigration into the United States foretell long-term doom for America’s great power status?–ed.  Immigration undoubtedly provides a dose of demographic vitality for the United States.  Cave’s story, however, it about illegal immigration from Mexico.  The data points to high rates of immigration from other Latin American countries and an expansion of legal immigration from Mexico proper.  The U.S. still remains a magnet economy.]