In his 2012 State of the Union address President Obama reaffirmed his stance on illegal immigration with regard to the Dream Act, which provides more citizenship opportunities for illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidates continue debating over methods to fight illegal immigration, such as Romney’s plan to encourage “self-deportation.” It is clear that illegal immigration will continue to remain a controversial and relevant issue for US policymakers.

Despite these debates over tightening illegal immigration regulations, a growing body of evidence suggests that illegal immigration is on the decline. Shannon K. O’Neil, expert on Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that the Latin American immigrant flow to the United States slowed in 2011, an unprecedented departure from past trends. Doug Massey, head of Princeton’s Mexican Migration Project, reported that the net immigration traffic had dropped to zero for the first time in 60 years. Statistics from the Pew Hispanic Center support these claims: the number of illegal border-crossers and visa-violators from Mexico has decreased to 100,000 in 2010, compared to the 525,000 average annual rate from between 2000 and 2004.

Indeed, this reversal in immigration flows is unusual and its causes are not limited to US domestic policy. Immigration decisions assess not only the “lure” of the target country and the benefits of its opportunities, but also the “push” from the home country and the difficulties faced there. In the United States, the Obama administration has cracked down especially hard on illegal immigration, with deportation rates reaching record highs of 400,000 immigrants last year. On the state level, Arizona and Alabama have adopted stricter immigration laws than they have in the past. However, the change in immigration cannot be solely attributed to US domestic policy, as signs of these reversals had already started showing before these tougher laws were adopted. Instead, the causes of this immigration trend depend just as much on changes in Mexico as in the United States.

Firstly, Mexico’s economy has experienced considerable growth in the past decades. Growing from the peso crisis and the economic turmoil of 1994, the Mexican economy has strengthened significantly, with GDP growth of 5 percent in 2010. In the 1980s, falling petroleum prices and rising international interest rates discouraged the high levels of protectionism and state participation which were then present in the economy. In response, in the 1990s the government began issuing unilateral measures to decrease tariffs and increase privatization, opening the Mexican economy to the world. On January 1, 1994, the governments of Mexico, Canada and the United States established the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), solidifying Mexico’s path towards economic liberalization and forming one of the world’s greatest trade blocs in terms of combined GDP. Under NAFTA, Mexican exports to the United States quadrupled while its imports from the United States tripled, with trade volume totaling US$400 billion per year. NAFTA also set the precedent for future trade agreements; Mexico currently holds trade agreements with forty-two other countries and remains Latin America’s biggest importer and exporter.

Now, Mexico has an estimated US$1.57 trillion dollar economy ranked twelfth-largest in the world. Admittedly, Mexico’s economic liberalization has not solved all of its poverty-related problems. Areas closer to the US border and trade sectors benefit disproportionately from NAFTA and trade liberalization. For example, NAFTA has brought an estimated 8 percent increase in economic activity in the US border region while only increasing southern economic activities by 0.1 percent.

However, the overall Mexican economy has grown, giving rise to a middle class of nearly forty million families. Despite limitations due to ineffective government bureaucracy, lacking physical infrastructure, and low investment in small companies, the overall increase in economic prosperity has made employment opportunities at home preferable to migration to the United States, where obstacles such as language barriers, legal issues, and distance from family would arise.

Other factors have also contributed to the declining immigration to the United States. Although Mexico has a powerful teachers’ union with a record of controversial irregularities, such as dead or imaginary teachers receiving pay, the government is implementing gradual educational reforms to combat this problem. Since 1994, the number of students enrolled in secondary school increased by two million. In addition, the adult literacy rate increased by nearly six percent over the same time period. In January 2012, Mexico’s Congress declared education compulsory through the completion of high school. Naturally, higher education levels lead to better employment and greater salaries, reducing the need to risk a border crossing in search of job opportunities. Compounded with other factors like increases in border crime and an expansion in legal immigration policy, the immigration rate from Mexico to the United States has plummeted.

While proponents for stronger immigration policies might cite the recent decrease in immigration as evidence of successful restrictions, the decrease in immigration to the United States is attributable to several other factors outside of US domestic policy. As migration trends point back towards Latin America, the relative standings of the Mexican and US economies will change, suggesting that immigration policies may have to be revised.

Staff Writer Scott Zhuge