Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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What to Watch in 2012: The End of Latino Immigration?

by Shannon K. O'Neil
January 3, 2012

Central American immigrants await a train departure to the north of Mexico, on top of a freight train in Arriaga, Chiapas (Jorge Lopez/Courtesy Reuters).

Looking ahead to the new year ahead of us, these next two weeks I want to look at important developments affecting Latin America that are worth keeping a close eye on in 2012. The first is the changing nature of immigration.

The flow of immigrants from Latin America to the United States, a constant and often accelerating trend of the last three decades, slowed in 2011. The most prominent was the change from Mexico. New arrivals fell off a cliff, with apprehensions at the border hitting their lowest levels in seventeen years. The drop is so great that Doug Massey, head of the Mexican Migration Project (a long term survey of Mexican emigration at Princeton University), claims that for the first time in sixty years, Mexican migration to the United States has hit a net zero.

Though Mexico is the single largest source of migrants to the United States, providing roughly a third of all newcomers, they weren’t the only change.  Anecdotal evidence at least suggests that many Brazilian migrants – which once numbered around one million – started heading home as well. Unemployment fell to all time lows, and numerous articles pointed out the labor scarcities both for high and low skilled workers.

There are many reasons behind these trends, some general, some country specific. Many point to the Obama administration’s rather tough immigration policy as one reason for the decline. A record-breaking 400,000 immigrants were deported last year, and immigration prosecutions increased almost eighty percent along the U.S-Mexico border in the last four years. For Mexico, others speculate that the rise of organized crime and violence along the border may deter some from contemplating the journey (though studies, such as that done by Jezmin Fuentes et al., suggest this may be less of a deterrent than many claim).

An important factor is the weak U.S. economy. With unemployment rates hovering at just over eight percent, there are fewer jobs for natives and migrants alike. This has occurred at a time when many of their home countries are growing steadily – at a decent 4 percent regional average clip, and much more in particular countries and economic strongholds. Better job opportunities in the region broadly — but particularly in Brazil — encouraged many to return home, and kept others from leaving at all.

Looking ahead, a U.S. economic recovery would recreate the pull north for Latin Americans seeking to improve their lot. If the Chinese economy stumbles this too could slow returns, or push more migrants north (especially from Brazil, which counts China as its largest trading partner). Meanwhile, flows from Central America are likely to continue as long as economic opportunities there remain scarce. The real question is Mexico. There, demographics have already shifted, with fewer Mexicans coming of age and entering the work force each year. As a result, the Mexican immigration boom of the 1990s and early 2000s is unlikely to be repeated ever again.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by LatAm Communiqué

    Long term I agree that Mexican migration to the United States will be on the decline. However, once the U.S. economy recovers I bet you will see larger numbers from LAC countries generally missing out on the region’s commodity boom driven growth, especially from Central America and the Caribbean.

  • Posted by Sean Walgren

    Two other important factors may well be the increasing use of employment verification form (I-9) audits by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and a perhaps corresponding increase in the use of the E-Verify system by employers. Some of the increased use of E-Verify is mandated by new state laws. But anecdotal evidence suggests a substantial amount is voluntary and intended by employers to reduce the risks of an I-9 audit. A third, less tangible factor, but perhaps one that is even more significant, may be an attitudinal shift by employers due to the more hostile federal and state enforcement environment. If so, the pull North from a prospective US economic recovery may be weaker than in the past.

  • Posted by Dan

    If the Mexican population is starting to decline, and the economy improve (as in most of Europe), is there not a high possibility that the economic migrants from poorer Central American countries will just go to Mexico, instead of all the way to the US?
    Surely working in a country in which you already speak the language, know the culture and can return home from easier is preferable to the work that most new immigrants are left with?

  • Posted by Chela

    @Dan: You raise logical questions, but there are a few things to consider. For one, immigration laws and laws regarding foreigners in Mexico are actually quite tough, so an immigrant would not necessarily be in a better position in Mexico in terms of being able to freely travel to his home country or gaining legal immigration status in Mexico. Unless a migrant worker already had a job to go to in Mexico, and immigration sponsorship from his employer, it would not really be all that much easier to stay in Mexico as a working immigrant. And that is partly because of language and culture. Two points on that:

    The cultures and languages of Mexico, Central and South America are actually quite different, like those of English speaking countries. So yes, a foreign Spanish speaker could communicate more easily in Mexico, but just as we in the US could point out a foreign English speaker in a heartbeat, so can Mexicans point out a foreign Spanish speaker. This can actually make things more difficult for a non-Mexican Spanish speaker, especially in rural areas, as Mexico is very suspicious of foreigners, legally speaking (and culturally, in some areas).

    Culture-wise, similar issue. Mexico has a unique culture, even within the Latin American culturescape. There are similarities between various Latin American cultures, but there are few Spanish speaking foreigners could arrive in Mexico “knowing the culture”, so to speak , or be able to fake it in order to fit in.

    Imagine an Englishman arriving in the US and trying to get by as an American. It would actually be quite difficult unless he were very well educated on American culture and could easily alter his accent. And the types of immigrants we’re talking about (mostly migrant workers) aren’t going to have that kind of knowledge.

    It is a great myth in American culture that there is “a” Hispanic culture or “a” Latin American culture.

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