A reliable study has now confirmed what we have known for some time (see “Mission Accomplished! A Way Forward on Immigration Reform”). According to a report released on April 23 by the Pew Hispanic Center, the historic boom in Mexican migration to the United States is now over, and in fact there may now be more Mexicans going back to Mexico from the United States than there are coming in.
Although this trend is likely to reverse again once the U.S. economy recovers, we are unlikely ever again to see the massive numbers of Mexican migrants that we saw over the past two decades, because the factors that produced those numbers cannot be replicated. In particular—although it will hopefully become possible over time to demilitarize the U.S-Mexican border, turn it back into something that looks like a border between two free countries and democratic allies, and redeploy the resources to more constructive uses—we will never ratchet border control and enforcement back to where it was twenty years ago. We are also unlikely to experience another housing bubble of the kind that fueled such an influx of Mexican construction workers.
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The policy implications of this development seem clear. It is not uncommon for the factors that fuel a policy issue to disappear long before the issue itself does. The issue of Mexican migration to the United States, which for so long has been the subject of overheated rhetoric and over-the-top proposed remedies, has been resolved largely (albeit not entirely) by forces beyond our control in the U.S. and Mexican economies. But the political issue endures; it will recede when the actors decide that it no longer serves them.
We can see that day coming. Concern is now palpable among Republicans that the party’s vehement anti-immigration stand is no longer politically viable. The facts on the ground—the disappearance of the wave of Mexican migration—may now give a boost to those who want to move the party back toward the center on this issue. All partisan considerations aside, it would be extremely beneficial for the country if we could transition to a situation where both parties were competing for the loyalty of Hispanics by advocating reasonable immigration policies.
We can hope that other good things might flow from the new immigration data as well. Maybe the Obama Administration could stop feeling constrained to set arbitrary deportation goals, which in practice continue to wreak havoc on immigrant families despite the administration’s intentions to the contrary.
The table is being set for the great immigration debate that must take place in the next Congress. It will be crucial for the parties to this debate to find a way to move away from a posture of playing to their respective bases to one of seeking common ground on viable solutions to the very real issues that remain. These include, above all, the regularization of the status of the millions of law-abiding immigrants who remain here without documentation, and the elaboration of a visa policy that permits the legal, orderly entry of immigrants required by U.S. employers. These are soluble problems. They are not as hard as they look, given the political will.
Finally, one of the best things that the United States can do encourage the trends that have produced the data in the new Pew report would be to help Mexico sustain and strengthen the broad-based economic growth that is giving Mexicans alternatives to migration to the United States.