"The largest wave of immigration in history from a single country to the United States has come to a standstill," declares an authoritative new study from the Pew Research Center. "After four decades that brought 12 million current immigrants -- most of whom came illegally -- the net migration flow from Mexico to the United States has stopped and may have reversed."
It's a trend experts have suspected for quite a while, but look for the new report to become a major point of contention in the immigration debate. Advocates of comprehensive immigration reform -- known as amnesty in some conservative circles -- will make an argument that boils down to this: The problem is over. We don't need to keep beefing up border security and spending millions on enforcement. Now, we can get to work on a "path to citizenship" for millions of illegals.
But it's not at all clear from the report that the problem is really over. It's in pause, certainly, but could come roaring back, especially if the U.S. eases up on enforcement.
The Pew study makes clear that Mexicans are still coming to the United States, mostly illegally; an estimated 1.4 million came between 2005 and 2010. But about the same number went back during that time, either voluntarily or courtesy of U.S. deportation authorities, making the net migration flow about zero. If illegal immigrants stop returning to Mexico -- or the U.S. stops sending them back -- the problem could reappear.
Pew attributes the "standstill" in immigration from Mexico to six factors: "the weakened U.S. job and housing construction markets, heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations, the growing dangers associated with illegal border crossings, the long-term decline in Mexico's birth rates, and broader economic conditions in Mexico."
The most important factor, according to the report, is the U.S. economic slump, especially the crash in new home construction. Mexicans arrived at a rate of 700,000 a year in 1999 and 2000. By 2009, the number was 150,000. Fewer jobs, fewer immigrants.
But at some point, the American economy will improve. What happens then? If the U.S. becomes a more attractive job market, and the government eases up on border security and workplace enforcement, illegal immigration will rise again.
"It seems indisputable to me that enforcement has played some role in this," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tighter controls on immigration. "We have found that the number of illegal immigrants started to decline before the economy tanked."
The Pew study suggests that stepped-up border enforcement has played a significant role in stopping illegal immigrants from entering the US. When noting that the number of would-be illegal immigrants caught at the border has fallen in recent years, Pew notes that the decline occurred "in spite of (and perhaps because of) increases in the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents."
The report also says significant changes have occurred on Mexico's end. For one thing, the country's fertility rate has dropped enormously, from 7.3 children per woman in 1960 to 2.4 in 2009. That means less pressure on Mexicans to leave, but it's also true that there have been times in recent decades when Mexico's fertility rate was decreasing and the number of illegals coming to the U.S. was skyrocketing.
Mexico's economy is also improving. In the short run, the country is experiencing a recovery, and in the long run, its per capita GDP has increased 22 percent since 1980. But given the dramatic ups and downs of the Mexican economy in the last few decades, there's no reason to believe another ugly downturn couldn't occur, leading more Mexicans to head north.
So the encouraging developments in the Pew report could rest largely on temporary factors. No one wants the American economy to stay in bad shape, and when it recovers, the jobs magnet will be back on. The Pew numbers are no reason to pull back on any of the enforcement measures currently underway, nor to stop pressing forward on systems like E-verify to keep U.S. employers from hiring illegals.
"This respite is good news," Krikorian says, "but it is a breather, an opportunity for us to catch up on enforcement so that when the next wave of pressure for illegal immigration comes, we're ready for it."
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.