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Reminder to Trump: More Mexicans Leave The U.S. Than Come Across The Border

In his meeting with the president of Mexico, the Republican nominee continued to ignore reality

President of Mexico Enrique Pena Nieto and U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a press conference at Los Pinos on August 31, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo by Hector Vivas via LatinContent/Getty Images.

On Wednesday, Republican nominee Donald Trump headed to Mexico for an eleventh-hour meeting with President Enrique Peña Nieto. Hours later, he spoke about immigration at a rally in the border state of Arizona. Clearly, Trump is not interested in pivoting his hardline views. Nieto has already disputed Trump's characterization of their discussion about which country would pay for the nominee's notorious border wall—throughout the day, his rhetoric was uncompromising:

“Zero tolerance for criminal aliens... There will be no amnesty. Our message to the world will be this: You cannot obtain legal status or become a citizen of the United States by illegally entering our country.”

But Trump’s views on immigration are rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of immigrant criminality and migration patterns. During a Republican debate in December of last year, Donald Trump declared that “people are pouring across the southern border.” Trump is right that the United States has been a major immigrant destination since the 1960s, but if he is referring to Mexican flows today, he is wrong.

According to sociologists Frank Bean and Gillian Stevens, Mexican migration to the United States is “the largest sustained flow of migrant workers in the contemporary world,” and Mexico is the single largest contributor of migrants to the United States since 1965. But here’s what Trump ignores: Pew’s most recent migration data on Mexico, which shows that more Mexicans are leaving than coming to the United States—reversing a decades-long trend.

The main cause of the trend is family reunification, but this migration back to Mexico is not driven by nostalgia for kin. The reasons behind it are much more complex.

Hard realities

Mexican families have to grapple with hard economic and legal realities, and they often conclude that returning to Mexico is their best option.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]One million Mexican migrants and their children left the U.S. for Mexico, while just over 860,000 left Mexico for the United States.[/quote]

The Pew Report looks at the years between 2009 and 2014. It combines Mexican survey data on the entry of Mexicans and their families—including American children—with U.S. census data on Mexican entries to the United States. The report is designed to overcome the limitations of national statistics that typically ignore departures.

The study shows a net loss of 140,000 Mexican immigrants from the United States. One million Mexican migrants and their children left the U.S. for Mexico, while just over 860,000 left Mexico for the United States.

While this may seem like a desirable outcome from an immigration control perspective, it may signal problems in the U.S. economy. Among other things, it means that the children of Mexican returnees—kids who are U.S. citizens—are leaving the country. U.S. losses may be Mexico’s gain in a world market that rewards multilingual workers.

So what is driving this “return” migration to Mexico?

Going home again

Respondents to one of the surveys behind the Pew Report were able to check off a box that says “reunite with the family” in response to a question about “the reason for [NAME]’s return.”

Six in 10 surveyed Mexicans who lived in the United States in 2009 but in Mexico by 2014 said they were moving back to reunite with family or to start a family. But this doesn’t tell us anything about what reuniting with one’s family involves.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Mexicans living in the U.S. are more likely to stay when they have good jobs.[/quote]

Research by Wayne Cornelius and colleagues concurs with the Pew Report that family reunification is an important reason for return, but also suggests that Mexicans living in the U.S. are more likely to stay when they have good jobs.

The evidence for this claim is an upward trend in remittances from the U.S. to Mexico between 2014 and 2015. Cornelius and his colleagues show that economic factors matter a great deal, even if they are not the only ones that matter in making migration decisions.

After all, the pull of the family has been a historical constant. Most migrants, domestic or international, pine for their relatives back home. Blues, Yiddish tango and the letters of Polish and Italian immigrants to relatives left behind are cultural expressions of this truism.

Yet missing home has not consistently driven return migration flows in the past, in the ways we’re seeing now with Mexicans. What’s driving it is changing economic, political and demographic conditions.

While “family reunification” may sound like a decidedly noneconomic rationale for return migration, it is not. Sociologists and economists have long made the case that people migrate primarily in search of economic opportunities and to diversify risks and sources of income from a familial—rather than a solely individual—standpoint.

From this perspective, it is not surprising that the lagged effects of the 2009 recession enter the decision-making progress of both individuals and families deciding whether to migrate.

Here, there, and in-between

The United States tends to focus on factors that pull immigrants into the country—like jobs and higher wages. It also looks at deterrents like restrictive policies. While these are critical factors in families’ decisions about migration, the return of Mexicans may be attributable more to failures in U.S. family reunification policy than in any intentional deterrent policy.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Border enforcement and dynamics between the United States and Mexico have created dangerous crossing conditions.[/quote]

Currently, Mexican family preference visas are being issued with a two-decade delay. Imagine a Mexican family that planned to move to the U.S. as a hedge against risks in the labor market and to gain access to credit markets back during the Clinton administration. A decades-long delay in getting a visa, coupled with a major recession in the U.S. and economic improvements in Mexico, may lead to a reconsideration of these plans.

Mexico’s economy has improved dramatically in the last decade. This improvement has translated into new job opportunities within the country. Fertility rates have decreased, and the population has aged. That means there are fewer people in the age cohort most likely to migrate—those aged 18 to 35. Smaller families are a trend that will not change quickly.

In addition, border enforcement and dynamics between the United States and Mexico have created dangerous crossing conditions—and a lucrative market for smugglers—that makes it more difficult for family members to come and go, and visit each other.

What does this mean for U.S. immigration policy moving forward?

Policy implications

If we want to create policies based on empirical economic and demographic realities, our leaders need to question prescriptions based on outdated data. Despite popular sound bites from the campaign trail, Mexican immigrants are not “pouring” over the border.

Responsible policy-making must reflect new realities. Otherwise, we will spend billions to build walls and deploy surveillance technologies to keep out people who are not coming—not to mention that these strategies have rarely worked.

Our tax dollars would be better spent integrating immigrants who are already here, managing refugees, filling shortages of less skilled workers and competing for talent on a global stage.

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