The Attachment of Unauthorized Immigrants to the United States

Though this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise — we’ve long known that intensified immigration enforcement has decreased circular migration and encouraged unauthorized immigrants to settle in the U.S. for longer periods of time, as they fear losing access to a more lucrative labor market — the Pew Hispanic Center crunches the numbers to estimate that 35% of the unauthorized immigrant population in the U.S. has been in the U.S. for 15 years or more while only 15% has been in the U.S. for fewer than five years. The decline in unauthorized immigration from Mexico, which flows from a combination of Mexico’s rapidly aging demographic profile, the housing bust, and (to some extent) enhanced border enforcement, has presumably contributed to this picture. 

P.S. Back in 2005, Matthew Dowd, a Democrat-turned-Republican who served as chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign, wrote a prescient New York Times op-ed that anticipated the shrinking of the Mexican influx:

The population growth rate of Mexico is now only slightly higher than that of Canada, where recent data shows it to be 1 percent. Twenty-five years ago, Mexico had a growth rate more than twice that of Canada.

So what is the significance of all this? The aging of the population in Mexico coupled with Mexico’s economic expansion mean that jobs in Mexico will be more plentiful, thereby prompting fewer young people to come to the United States in search of work. Studies have shown that as the population growth rate in countries worldwide slows, migration drops. This is especially true for an expanding economy like Mexico – in one telling statistic, youth unemployment there dropped to 4.1 percent in 2001 from 9.6 percent in 1995.

A recent Pew Hispanic Center study highlights some of the change in immigration to the United States from the south. Pew predicts that the share of first-generation immigrants in the total Hispanic population in the United States will drop from about 40 percent in 2000 to closer to a third by 2020. Thus first-generation immigrants will decline by almost 20 percent as a share of the total Hispanic population in the United States.

If the trend continues, it could be that we’ve already seen the high-water mark of illegal Mexican immigration – put simply, the issue may be resolving itself.

What would be the practical effect of all this? It suggests that any long-term project to close off the United States-Mexico border may use up money that could be more useful elsewhere. What’s more, businesses that depend on a steady supply of low-paid illegal immigrants to keep costs down – restaurants, farms, construction companies – will most likely need to adapt by increasing salaries and benefits so they can attract legal immigrants or citizens as workers.

This (accurate) description of the broader terrain may has misled the Bush White House into believing that pushing a comprehensive immigration reform agenda would prove politically successful or at least politically neutral. That was not the case. I’d also add that Dowd didn’t anticipate the housing bust and the resulting weakness of the Mexican economy, yet the underlying demographic trend remained in place. So it is possible that while weakness in the Mexican economy might have provided somewhat more “push,” weakness in the U.S. economy reduced the “pull” of job opportunities for less-skilled workers.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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