Is a ‘Massive Wave of Illegal Immigration’ on the Horizon?

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A new wave of illegal immigration is right around the corner, according to USA Today reporter Alan Gomez.

“With each day that passes, the chances of Congress agreeing on how to overhaul the nation's immigration laws grow dimmer,” Gomez wrote on Monday. “What members of Congress need to realize, though, is that another massive wave of illegal immigration is forming and rapidly headed to our shores.”


He lays out a compelling argument. Illegal immigration has been at a standstill for the past few years, but won’t stay that way forever. Experts are concerned about a possible slowdown in the Chinese economy, which could in turn hurt Latin American countries that sell commodities to China.

At the same time, the U.S. economy is improving, and rejuvenated sectors like construction and retail could attract low-skilled workers from south of the border.

There’s a big hole in that theory, though: Mexico.

The growth in illegal immigration to the U.S. in recent decades was fueled in a large part by Mexico. According to a 2009 report by the Pew Research Center, Mexicans make up 59 percent of the undocumented immigrants living in the country.


But Mexico has changed a lot since the beginning of that wave of migration, the largest ever from a single country to the U.S.

For starters, the average number of children born to women in Mexico has dropped precipitously in recent decades. The rate fell from 7.2 children per woman in 1960 to 2.2 in 2012, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.


That’s already had an impact on immigration flows. In 2012, the Pew Research Center found that net migration from Mexico had reached zero, meaning just as many Mexicans were leaving the U.S. as were entering it.


(Source: Pew Research Center)

The economy in Mexico has also improved since the early 1990s. The gross domestic product, when broken out per person, grew by 40 percent from 1988 to 2008.


That wealth hasn’t been distributed equally, but there’s an emerging middle class in Mexico, giving lots of people a good reason to stay. And the gulf between what Mexicans can earn in the U.S. versus Mexico isn’t as steep as it was at the start of the migration boom in the early 1990s.


Source: “Mexican Migration to the United States: Underlying Economic Factors and Possible Scenarios for Future Flows” by The Wilson Center and the Migration Policy Institute

None of this rules out an increase in illegal immigration from other parts of Latin America. Border Patrol agents in South Texas are already recording a rise in the number of Central Americans apprehended while trying to cross without authorization. And the fragile economies in some South American countries could fuel migration in coming years.


But Mexico was a special case: it shares a 1,954-mile border with the U.S. and has a bigger population than every other country in Latin America, aside from Brazil.

There’s really no comparison, according to Marc Rosenblum, a deputy director at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonpartisan think tank.


“There have been flows from Colombia and Ecuador and other parts of South America; certainly push factors from that region could boost those flows a little bit,” he said. “But the convergence of the shared border, the wage gap between the U.S. and Mexico, and the demographics between World War II and a decade or so ago really was sort of a perfect storm.”

The takeaway: Will there be a spike in illegal immigration in the coming years? It’s entirely possible. But it won’t be anywhere near the wave of migration we saw in recent decades.


Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.

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