Truman National Security Project

Decline in Migration Clears a Path for Reform


The Supreme Court stepped into the eye of the immigration storm recently, reviewing Arizona’s notorious immigration law.

Yet for all of the talk about border security and the soaring unauthorized immigrant population, new data pointed out that for the first time since the Great Depression, the immigration wave is crashing to a stop.

What used to be a steady flow of Mexican immigrants coming to work in the United States has all but come to a standstill according to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center, titled “Net Migration from Mexico falls to Zero —Perhaps Less.”

The study shows that the number of Mexican immigrants – legal or otherwise – coming to the United States dropped from 2.9 million between 1995 and 2000 to a total of 1.4 million in 2005-2010. At the same time, the number of migrants who returned to Mexico between 2005 and 2010 increased to 1.4 million roughly double the number who had done so in the five-year period a decade before.

This is not surprising. We all know the biggest reason immigrants come to the United States is to find a job. So, when the demand for labor decreases with an economic slowdown, fewer migrants venture north.

Add to the mix Mexico’s falling birthrate and improved economic conditions, and, well, coming to America just isn’t what it used to be. Especially since the trip north requires immigrants to risk their lives because America’s immigration system remains broken.

But, with a record slump in migration, America has an opportunity to take a step back and confront the inadequacies of our immigration system.

While we have a dynamic economy that is nimble and creative, we have a stagnant immigration system wearing cement shoes, unable to match the changing labor and economic demands of our nation. The fact is our immigration laws have not been updated in 20 years and there are only limited avenues available for immigrants to come to the U.S. legally.

It will be a mistake to conclude from the Pew report that a continuation of the same old enforcement-only strategies will solve our illegal immigration problem. Yes, border security is needed to regulate the flow of goods and people in an orderly manner while preventing true security threats. But the current decline also shows how contingent migration is on economic factors and how our immigration infrastructure is inadequate at controlling those migration flows.

Our economy will pick up again, and with it, the demand for labor in the construction, food services and other industries that rely heavily on immigrant hands. We need to take advantage of the opportunity now to create an immigration system so migrants’ journey north to fill U.S. labor needs, is with a visa and not a coyote.

Opponents of immigration reform have used the excuse of “border security first” to derail any efforts to practically deal with the unauthorized immigrant population and fix the legal channels for future migration. Based on the Pew report, our expenditure of $17 billion a year on immigration enforcement, and record low numbers of border apprehensions proves that dog doesn’t bite anymore.

You don’t repair a bridge at rush hour. You do it at a time when crossings are down. Now is the time to reform our immigration system and include adequate and flexible avenues of legal immigration that match our economic realities.

Katherine Vargas is a Truman Partner.