The Agenda

As Life in Mexico Improves …

Mexico should be one of the world’s most promising emerging markets. Yet the Mexican economy is plagued by a number of interrelated problems, including a weak public sector, poor transport links in the central and southern parts of the country, a deteriorating security environment, entrenched rural poverty (and poverty increased markedly between 2006 and 2009), and high barriers to competition and entrepreneurship. While proximity to the United States has been an advantage, it has also been a liability, e.g., it has led to overdependence on the American consumer market and low-cost manufacturing. 

Yet as Charles Kenny argues in Getting Better, a narrow focus on economic indicators can obscure progress on other important human indicators. As Damien Cave reports in the New York Times, Mexico has made impressive strides in recent years.

In simple terms, Mexican families are smaller than they had once been. The pool of likely migrants is shrinking. Despite the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico, birth control efforts have pushed down the fertility rate to about 2 children per woman from 6.8 in 1970, according to government figures. So while Mexico added about one million new potential job seekers annually in the 1990s, since 2007 that figure has fallen to an average of 800,000, according to government birth records. By 2030, it is expected to drop to 300,000.

Even in larger families like the Orozcos’ — Angel is the 9th of 10 children — the migration calculation has changed. Crossing “mojado,” wet or illegally, has become more expensive and more dangerous, particularly with drug cartels dominating the border. At the same time, educational and employment opportunities have greatly expanded in Mexico. Per capita gross domestic product and family income have each jumped more than 45 percent since 2000, according to one prominent economist, Roberto Newell. Despite all the depictions of Mexico as “nearly a failed state,” he argued, “the conventional wisdom is wrong.” [Emphasis added]

It is also true, as Cave goes on to illustrate, that Mexican migrants have easier access to legal migration channels:

State Department figures show that Mexicans who have become American citizens have legally brought in 64 percent more immediate relatives, 220,500 from 2006 through 2010, compared with the figures for the previous five years. Tourist visas are also being granted at higher rates of around 89 percent, up from 67 percent, while American farmers have legally hired 75 percent more temporary workers since 2006.

Edward McKeon, the top American official for consular affairs in Mexico, said he had focused on making legal passage to the United States easier in an effort to prevent people from giving up and going illegally. He has even helped those who were previously illegal overcome bans on entering the United States.

“If people are trying to do the right thing,” Mr. McKeon said, “we need to send the signal that we’ll reward them.”

I tend to think that the U.S. should pare back family reunification migration in favor of an increased emphasis on skill-based and humanitarian migration, but that’s a separate issue. Cave makes it clear that immigration enforcement has raised the risks and costs associated with unauthorized migration.

I’ve long been of the view that the best approach to dealing with migration from Mexico to the United States is to encourage sustained income growth in Mexico. That seems to have happened despite the fact that Mexico has been buffeted by a difficult global economic climate, and that is very good news. 


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