Implications of “illegal immigration hits net-zero”

Here is another consequence of the American economic crisis: the flow of undocumented immigrants to the United States has hit “net-zero.”

One million Mexicans said they returned from the US between 2005 and 2010, according to a new demographic study of Mexican census data. That’s three times the number who said they’d returned in the previous five-year period.

And they aren’t just home for a visit: One prominent sociologist in the US has counted “net zero” migration for the first time since the 1960s.

Experts say the implications for both nations are enormous – from the draining of a labor pool in the US to the need for a radical shift in policies in Mexico, which has long depended on the billions of dollars in migrant remittances as a social welfare cornerstone.

“The massive return of migrants will have implications at the micro and macro economic levels and will have consequences for the social fabric … especially for the structure of the Mexican family,” says Rodolfo Casillas, a migration expert at the Latin American School of Social Sciences in Mexico City.

Sociologist Douglas Massey provides more details about what has happened:

The migration explosion that since the 1970s had pushed millions of men, women, and children into the United States has fizzled, says Douglas Massey, a sociologist at Princeton University and codirector of the long-term, binational Mexican Migration Project. “We’re at a turning point, and what unfolds in the future remains to be seen. But I think the boom is over.”

Mr. Massey’s research shows that after the US recession hit, the illegal population fell from about 12 million to 11 million, where it has hovered since 2009. (About 60 percent of the illegal population is Mexican.)

Similarly, Homeland Security estimates released in March suggest that while the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the US grew 36 percent between 2000 and 2011, from 8.5 million to 11.5 million, that growth plateaued in 2010 and 2011.

“With no change in either direction, we’re roughly at a net zero,” says Massey, and adds that it’s something unseen since the late 1950s.

This bears watching. Now that I think about it, we have heard little about this topic on a national scale in recent months. Do the majority of Americans only care about this issue under certain circumstances? Thinking more broadly, does American news coverage focus on only a narrow set of issues (such as jobs, political responses and approval ratings, spending vs. accumulating debt, possible solutions) during an economic crisis rather than looking at the broad range of social spheres, including the relationships between the United States and other countries, affected by a downturn?

Sociologist predicts shift in American unskilled, immigrant laborers: they will come from China rather than Mexico

While the economic downturn has reduced the interest in immigration reform, a sociologist suggests a new trend in the immigrant unskilled labor force in America: in the future, such laborers will come from China rather than Mexico.

Q: Why might Chinese immigrants overtake Mexican immigrants in low-wage, unskilled jobs here?

A: Mexico for decades has supplied our country with low-wage laborers, legal and illegal, but that’s grinding to a halt. Increased border surveillance and high unemployment are keeping people away from the United States. Other things are holding people in Mexico. They have a lower unemployment rate than we do. And what a lot of people don’t realize is that their fertility is dropping to 2.2 children per woman. It used to be six or seven children a few decades ago. There are fewer young people available (to take jobs), and fewer mouths to feed. There are about 4 million or 5 million undocumented Mexican immigrants in our country (and about 11 million illegal immigrants total). They pick up garbage, work construction, agriculture – all the things in big cities that the local people don’t want to do. Who’s going to do that work? There’s already a network of migration from China to our country; probably 200,000 to 300,000 undocumented Chinese are here. They’re mainly on the East Coast, in Houston and Los Angeles. They’re mainly doing restaurant work. Undocumented Mexicans are much more visible.

Q: Why would they leave China for the United States?

A: You have all of these rural-to-urban migrants inside China who are essentially driving the Chinese economy, doing all the work in the big cities, doing all the construction, the nanny work, the low-level jobs. They’re not going to do that forever. The economy is starting to slow down in China. The first people to lose their jobs will be these rural-to-urban migrants. In China, to move from one place to another, you have to get permission at both ends. That never happens, so people move unofficially. There are already 10 million unemployed rural-to-urban migrants. There’s already a China-to-U.S. network of undocumented migrants.

Several pieces of this argument strikes me:

1. The Chinese economy slows down. This would be a big issue for the global economy. Would there even be much of a flow of people round the globe if this happens?

2. The urbanization process in China may only be picking up steam. Here is a 2009 report from the McKinsey Global Institute on the topic. Is China prepared for this?

3. Mexican laborers are finding it harder to come to the United States and have more reasons for staying in Mexico. Does this mean that the debate over immigration from Mexico is essentially over?

4. If this shift does happen, would the immigration debate simply turn to China and away from Mexico? If so, what might be the implications of this for the US-China relationship?

Quiet plans for private illegal immigrant prison anger Florida town

Here is an interesting story about quiet plans to build a privately-run prison for illegal immigrants in a wealthy Florida town that helps illustrate the issues of having private prisons, NIMBY concerns, and immigration:

Only the leaders of Southwest Ranches kept their plans quiet from residents for almost a decade, and the project has now ballooned into what would be among the federal government’s largest immigrant detention centers. The town would have to pay $150,000 each year to keep the prison, but officials say the town would turn a profit by getting 4 percent of what U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement pays the company operating the prison to hold inmates there.

Many residents finally caught wind of the idea this year, when the immigration agency announced a tentative deal, and they’re angry. They’ve held protests at public meetings, contemplated whether to recall the mayor before his March election and whether to amend the town charter to make it easier to fire the city attorney pushing the deal.

The objection over the prison has created an odd set of allies among the town’s affluent residents, many of whom are wary of illegal immigrants, and longtime activists who fight for immigrants, legal or not…

But according to Mayor Jeff Nelson and others involved at the time, the plan for some kind of prison run by Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison operator, was always integral to Southwest Ranches’ ability to survive.

The town, a self-described “rural lifestyle community” located southwest of Fort Lauderdale, is for the equestrian set. There are several very interesting cross-currents in this story:

1. Lots of towns need revenue. Not only will Southwest Ranches earn money per inmate but there will be jobs at the prison.

2. Immigration is a hot-button issue. Shouldn’t people in town opposed to illegal immigration welcome such facilities?

3. But, of course, those worried about illegal immigration probably don’t want the prison right next to them. Classic NIMBY situation – build it somewhere else.

4. Local officials have done this quietly and it appears residents may not be able to do much at this point about halting the process.

The conclusion of this story makes it sound like the NIMBY concerns win out – as one resident says, “In the opposition to the prison, both sides of the immigration debate are represented.” I can’t say I’m surprised – what wealthy community would want a prison in town? If the private company doesn’t end up building in this town, how difficult will it be for them to find another town who needs the revenue? And if this community does indeed need revenue, would these same residents be willing to give up services or pay higher taxes?

New data for American debate over immigration

The debate over immigration to the United States should incorporate some new data:

An important article in the New York Times reports that illegal Mexican migration to America has “sputtered to a trickle”. According to Douglass Massey, a professor of sociology who co-directs Princeton’s Mexican Migration Project, “a trickle” may overstate it:

“No one wants to hear it, but the flow has already stopped,” Mr. Massey said, referring to illegal traffic. “For the first time in 60 years, the net traffic has gone to zero and is probably a little bit negative.”

Why? Lots of reasons. Ramped-up border policing and harsher treatment of undocumented Mexicans living in the US has probably had some effect. But, much more importantly, Mexico has become a better place to live. Here’s the Times:

Over the past 15 years, this country once defined by poverty and beaches has progressed politically and economically in ways rarely acknowledged by Americans debating immigration. Even far from the coasts or the manufacturing sector at the border, democracy is better established, incomes have generally risen and poverty has declined.

Read this data here and here.

As I read this piece, I was reminded that Americans seem to know very little about what is happening in nearby countries like Mexico or Canada. Most if not all of what I have heard in recent months about Mexico has to do with drug cartels and their violence. Do we not hear much because of American exceptionalism, narrow-mindedness, a lack of media attention, jingoism, or something else?

The piece also suggests that Americans would benefit by helping Mexico develop. I wonder if most Americans would buy into this logic or rather think that if Mexico improves, America loses (a zero-sum game). Would Americans even approve the Marshall Plan if it came up today?

Decrease in illegal immigration between 2007 and 2009

Based on data from the US Census Bureau, a new report from the Pew Hispanic Center says illegal immigration has recently dropped with a 67% decrease for the years 2007 and 2009 (about 300,000 people a year) compared to the years 2000 to 2005 (about 850,000 people a year).

A Washington Post piece explores the reasons for the decline:

Douglas Massey, a Princeton University sociologist who studies migration, said the recession and lack of jobs are major factors in the decline of those entering the country illegally.

The unemployment rate for unauthorized immigrants is 10.4 percent higher than that of either U.S.-born residents or legal immigrants, the Pew report said.

Massey said other likely reasons for the decline include an increase in law enforcement and deportations, and enactment of stricter legislation against illegal immigrants. He also pointed to more guest-worker spots, from 104,000 in 2000 to 302,000 in 2009 — allowing more immigrants to come to the United States legally.

While these results are open to some interpretation (the article includes several perspectives), the economic situation has to play a big role. For all immigrants, a weaker American economy likely has a big impact on decisions about whether to come to the United States. Without plentiful jobs, the “land of opportunity” has less to offer.

One way to help assess the impact of economics on illegal immigration would be to see whether immigration of all kinds is down over this same time period.