A brief history of illegal immigration

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...The flow of undocumented immigrants began to taper in the middle of the past decade. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the influx averaged 800,000 per year from 2000 to 2004, then dropped to about 500,000 per year from 2005 to 2008. It has almost certainly decreased even more since then, as the Great Recession has wiped out demand for foreign labor. People think of the torrent of illegal immigration in the recent past, and “it scares the pants off them,” says Dowell Myers, a professor in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California. But “the [demographic] trends that were driving changes in the last decade won’t be there in the next decade.”

Mexico’s fertility rate has plummeted for a variety of reasons. Starting in the 1970s, its government undertook one of the most aggressive contraception campaigns in Latin America and set up family-planning clinics across the country. Women also received better schooling, and as Mexico continued to urbanize and industrialize they entered the workforce in much higher numbers. The result was more economic opportunity, greater control over their lives—and fewer babies....

Of course, many Mexicans will continue to feel the urge to move north regardless of economic changes. Over many decades, migration has become ingrained in the culture. Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, recalls visiting a school where every kid in the class had an uncle in the U.S. and most planned to move there. “I think we’re going to continue to see migration,” he says. In all likelihood, however, it won’t be nearly as overwhelming as the deluge of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Many Americans don’t realize just how unusual that deluge was. History, economics, and demographics conspired to create a perfect storm, says Gordon Hanson, an economics professor at the University of California, San Diego, who has studied the issue in depth. In the 1960s, he explains, the baby boom ended in the U.S., but it continued for another two decades in Mexico. So in the 1980s and 1990s, there were fewer new U.S. workers looking for jobs but more Mexicans. On top of that, in 1982 the Mexican economy suffered a debt crisis, followed by nearly two decades of sluggish growth. The American economy, on the other hand, performed far better, especially in the mid to late 1990s, when it was humming at full throttle and hungry for foreign labor. “If you look back at the last two to three decades, it was really an exceptional period,” says Hanson....

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