LOS ANGELES — The number of undocumented immigrants in the US has remained unchanged at 11 million, but Mexicans make up a shrinking piece of that pie, researchers announced Tuesday.
Filling the void left by fewer Mexicans in the US are undocumented immigrants from Asia, Central America, and sub-Saharan Africa, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.
Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Research Center, said Mexicans still make up a majority of the undocumented population, at 52%, and will likely continue to do so.
“But when we look at the unauthorized population, you see this picture of Mexican unauthorized immigrants declining,” Passel told BuzzFeed News.
The number of unauthorized Mexicans in the US has steadily declined since 2007, the first year of the Great Recession, and has now reached historic lows, affecting the Mexican population as whole.
The decline in the United States' Mexican population has been mostly due to a drop of more than 1 million undocumented immigrants coming from Mexico, from a high of 6.9 million in 2007 to about 5.6 million in 2014.
And from 2009 to 2014, 1 million Mexicans and their US-born children headed south of the border, leading to a net loss of 140,000 Mexican nationals — a reverse migration flow not seen since the 1930s, according to the Pew Research Center.
Historically, the number of migrants seeking work has ebbed and flowed with the demands of the US economy. Yet more than five years into the economic recovery here, the number of Mexican immigrants, particularly younger ones, has dropped to historic levels.
The Pew Research Center has found that apprehensions of Mexican migrants at the border in fiscal year 2015 dropped to the lowest levels in nearly 50 years. The total number of immigrants detained at the border in 2015 was also the lowest since 2000, at about 337,000 from 1,676,438, according to the US Border Patrol.
Tunkás, an agricultural town of 3,500 people in the Mexican state of Yucatán, is a microcosm of what’s driving the trend.
Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, have been studying the poverty-stricken town since 2006 in an effort to document and explain the shifts in migration patterns.
“You can crunch the numbers from any number of national level surveys, but they don’t enable you to really delve into the nuances of what motivates people to migrate or stay home,” one of the researchers, Wayne Cornelius, told BuzzFeed News.
Tunkás, which is home to an indigenous population, has been sending migrants to the US since the 1970s. But just 3% of residents surveyed last year said they intended to make the trek, compared to 17% in 2006.
The Pew Research Center found that 61% of migrants who were living in the US in 2009, but who had returned to Mexico by 2014, cited family reunification as their main motivation.
But experts say other factors are fueling the reverse flow of migration, such as improving conditions in Mexico and the perception that the US economy hasn’t fully recovered.
It’s not just that more Mexicans are making the decision to stay put, Cornelius said, it’s that people who had the highest tendency to immigrate to the US in terms of age, family connections, and migration history, are already here. Young people are no longer traveling north the way they used to.
Falling birth rates and a smaller labor force in Mexico have also contributed to the reverse trend.
“It is conceivable the pool will never be replaced, certainly not to the extent before the Great Recession,” Cornelius said. “If the United States has a labor shortage, that might pull a few of those available people in Mexico, but again, they’re less likely to go now, even with a labor demand in the US.”
In addition to family and the persistent belief that US jobs are still hard to come by, Mexico’s borderlands have become more dangerous. Tighter border controls have also acted as a deterrent.
Julia Parra was born in Tunkás, but grew up in Anaheim, California, after the family followed her father to the United States. So she frequently fields inquiries from those considering immigrating.
“I tell them the truth — it’s too dangerous now and it’s not as easy here as they think it is,” said Parra as she sat in her living room near an altar for her late mother. “It pains me to tell them, and I feel pity for them because I know how hard it can be to make a living.”
But a strengthening domestic economy in Mexico is opening up opportunities where there weren’t before.
According to the World Bank, Mexico's economy grew at an annual rate of between 1.1% and 5.1% from 2010 to 2014. The number of Mexicans living in extreme poverty has also started to fall, and views of the United States have been shifting. While almost half of adults in Mexico believe life is better to the north, a growing number say it’s likely a wash, according to the Pew Research Center.
And that's despite the US being five years into its post-recession recovery.
“It’s a perception that has persisted well into the recovery, and it may be a permanent perception, but it’s too soon to tell,” Cornelius said. “This new calculus for staying at home in Mexico seems like it’s going to be pretty durable.”
Still, the number of undocumented immigrants who remain in the US will likely continue to be a mainstay for years to come, with researches noting that of them are staying longer.
For example, the number of undocumented immigrants in the US for 10 years or more climbed to 66% in 2014 compared with 41% in 2005, according to the Pew. Among undocumented Mexican immigrants, the number is higher — 78% reported living in the US for 10 years or more as of 2014.
Passel, the Pew demographer, said the number of undocumented immigrants increasingly consists of young families who have children in school.
“What we’re going to continue to see is a lot of families where some members are US citizens and some are unauthorized,” Passel said. “We’ll continue to see Mexicans coming to the US, but whether their overall numbers will continue to go down, I have no basis for saying that.”
Adolfo Flores is a national security correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He focuses on immigration.
Contact Adolfo Flores at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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