- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2009

Apparently deterred by the difficult U.S. job market, the number of Mexicans who crossed the border dropped sharply in the past year to the lowest level in a decade, though Mexicans who have already made the trip north are opting to stay.

The analysis of census data from both the U.S. and Mexican governments, released Wednesday by the Pew Hispanic Center, highlights the impact of the economic downturn on Mexican immigrants, many of whom enter the United States illegally.

The study found that immigrants arriving from Mexico fell by 249,000 from March 2008 to March 2009, down nearly 60 percent from the previous year. As a result, the annual inflow of immigrants is now 175,000, having steadily decreased from a peak of 653,000 in 2005, before the bursting of the housing bubble dried up construction and other entry-level jobs.

The total population of Mexican-born immigrants in the U.S. also edged lower in the past year, from 11.6 million to 11.5 million, according to the study by Pew, an independent research group. Up to 85 percent of Mexican immigrants are thought to be in the country illegally.

Still, immigrants already in the country are opting not to return to Mexico, because many of them are betting the economy will improve while perhaps hoping that immigration reform could soon pave the way for U.S. citizenship, said Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at Pew and a co-author of the study.

According to researchers, the level of Mexican migrants who return home from the U.S. and other countries each year - about 450,000 - has remained largely unchanged.

“There’s not a lot in Mexico to go back to, because if anything the Mexican economy is doing worse,” Mr. Passel said. “But also, in light of enforcement that has made it more dangerous and expensive to get into the U.S., once people get here, they’re reluctant to leave.”

Mr. Passel said while the immigration shifts may be temporary depending on the length of the U.S. recession, some of the effects could be longer lasting. He noted that fewer Hispanics coming into the U.S. could further slow minority population growth here, since higher fertility levels among Hispanics are driving much of the recent increases.

Mexico’s population is also graying and its labor force shrinking, which could mean a better jobs picture in that country due to reduced worker competition in the next five to 10 years. That could mean reduced immigration levels from Mexico to the United States even after the U.S. economy recovers, Mr. Passel said.

Among Pew’s other findings:

c In 2008, the number of Mexicans apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol - 662,000 - was 40 percent below the peak of 1.1 million in 2004, reflecting in part the sharp decline in the number of new immigrants arriving into the U.S.

c Mexico is by far the leading country of origin for most U.S. immigrants, accounting for one-third of foreign-born residents and two-thirds of Hispanic immigrants. About one in 10 people born in Mexico now live in the U.S.

The findings come as the Obama administration has pledged to take up immigration law this year. A key Democrat in the effort, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, has said he hopes to have a bill ready by Labor Day.

Steven Camarota, a demographer at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington research group that calls for reduced immigration, said the findings demonstrate that tougher law enforcement can make a difference. Still, he said it will take a lot more than tighter border security to get comprehensive reform passed.

“Border control is just one piece of a larger enforcement puzzle, while amnesty is a different question,” Mr. Camarota said. “It’s unlikely there will be a sympathetic hearing in Congress for legalization of immigrants as long as unemployment remains high.”

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