It’s time to look south when thinking about immigration. It’s likely that in the coming couple of years more Mexican immigrants will be heading south, not north. That’s because the number of deportations is steadily increasing. What’s more, many Mexicans (and Central Americans) are themselves deciding to return home. The deteriorating U.S. economy and the ongoing immigrant crackdown are wearing down the determination of many immigrants to make their permanent homes in the United States. As yet, there are few hard numbers on this reverse flow of immigrants. And it is unknown whether it’s the economy or the crackdown that is causing most of the returning immigrants to abandon the United States. Estimates vary greatly for the projected number of returning immigrants. The UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA, or CEPAL in Spanish) warned this week of the likely return of 2-3 million immigrants in the next few years. ECLA’s executive secretary Alicia Bárcena explained that the agency’s projection was based on conclusions about the U.S. economy, particularly the hard-hit construction industry. “We are facing a very uncertain situation,” she said, “With respect to the return of immigrants, these numbers of between two and three million is because the calculation was done from the United States,” noting how difficult it is to study illegal immigrants. Luz María de la Mora, head of the economic relations department of Mexico’s ministry of foreign relations, called ECLA’s estimates “reasonable numbers.” Mexican government estimates, however, run much lower. Mexico’s labor secretary Javier Lozano estimates that 200,000 Mexican immigrants will return to Mexico, and the government of Mexico City recently projected that 20,000-30,000 will return to the city in the coming year. Senator Silvano Aureoles predicts that Mexico can expect 800,000 returning immigrants between this November and February 2009. In a new study the Pew Hispanic Center reports that the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States appears to have declined. It estimates that the population dropped from 12.4 million in 2007 to 11.9 million in April 2008. Furthermore, it estimates that inflows of unauthorized immigrants averaged 800,000 a year from 2000 to 2004, but fell to 500,000 a year from 2005 to 2008 with a decreasing year-to-year trend. While immigration flows traditionally respond to economic trends, the new politics of the immigration crackdown since 2001 have made it increasingly difficult to cross illegally into the United States and increasingly difficult to live here. Forced returns have risen dramatically since 2005 when the immigrant crackdown began in earnest. DHS repatriated 349,041 immigrants in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. That’s a 20% jump over the previous year. This increase occurs at a time when apprehensions of illegal border crossers has dropped dramatically – about 18% down from last year, and 39% from 2005. In 2005, immigration authorities arrested 1.2 million immigrants while 724,000 were arrested in fiscal 2008. A decline in apprehensions indicates that fewer immigrants are attempting to cross illegally into the United States. If immigration flows over the past several years were equal, one would expect a higher rate of arrests in the past couple of years given increased border security, including several thousand more agents patrolling the border. Tough times in the United States do not, of course, mean that illegal immigrants will automatically return home. As economic conditions worsen in the United States, they are also eroding south of the U.S. border. In the past, illegal immigrants crossed back and forth into the United States to work temporary jobs and to return to Mexico to visit family. But with increased border enforcement, crossing illegally has become more difficult and much more expensive. As a result, unauthorized immigrants who cross back into Mexico probably know that they are going back for good. Only when the U.S. economy picks up will we get a good indication of how effective new U.S. border control efforts really are. Meanwhile, DHS chief Michael Chertoff hopes that the new administration continues on the enforcement regimen that he has started. When asked by a reporter about declining immigration flows related to the stagnating economy, Chertoff said:
“We can make real good use of this time to continue to build the border protection that we need and the enforcement that we need. Each year, assuming we continue along the path we have charted, it is going to be harder and harder and harder for people to cross the border.
“I think we can actually lock in the progress that we have made, if we continue to keep the pace up over the next year or two, so that if economic conditions change down the road, although the incentives to come in may increase somewhat, the deterrents will have really increased because we will have more fence, more border patrol, more technology, more enforcement...”