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Home again in Mexico: Illegal immigration hits net zero

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The trend began with a weaker economy in the US. But even if a stronger one were to pull many Mexicans back to the US, the new pattern could persist. Migrants – and the experts who study them – say they are deterred by state laws in the US that have fueled anti-immigrant sentiment, tougher US-border enforcement, and border violence.

So, many Mexicans simply stay put. And now, the human calculus of possibility means they can stay put – or at least are more able to than their parents, who turned the US-Mexican border corridor into the busiest in the world. Today in Mexico there is greater access to education, growing per capita income, and lower fertility rates – all making a life here more viable. In turn, a life in the shadows of the US, separated from family often for years, is less palatable.

"The calculation is finally making people come back and decide to stay in Mexico," says Agustin Escobar, a demographer at the Center for Research in Social Anthropology in Guadalajara, Mexico.

'Net zero' migration

While the loud immigration controversy of recent years – with walls erected and sheriffs planning anti-immigrant armies – got the headlines, the powerful migration shift went on largely unnoticed.

Pedro Laguna's odyssey is a clear and common sign of the reverse calculus on the ground.

At the macroeconomic level, Douglas Massey, founder of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University, has documented what he calls "net zero" migration. The population of undocumented immigrants in the US fell from 12 million to approximately 11 million during the height of the financial crisis (2008-09), he says. And since then, Mexicans without documents aren't migrating at rates to replace the loss, creating a net zero balance for the first time in 50 years.

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