WASHINGTON — The number of Mexican immigrants living illegally in the United States has dropped significantly for the first time in decades as many, finding few job opportunities, return to Mexico.
Roughly 6.1 million unauthorized Mexican immigrants were living in the U.S. last year, down from a peak of nearly 7 million in 2007, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report released Monday. It was the biggest sustained drop in modern history, believed to be surpassed in scale only by losses in the Mexican-born U.S. population during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Much of the drop in illegal immigrants is a result of the persistently weak U.S. economy, which has reduced construction and service-sector jobs attractive to Mexican workers. But increased deportations, heightened U.S. patrols and violence along the border also have played a role, as have demographic changes such as Mexico's declining birthrate.
In all, the Mexican-born population in the U.S. last year — legal and illegal — fell to 12 million, marking an end to an immigration boom dating back to the 1970s. The 2007 peak was 12.6 million.
Christian Ballesteros, who has been at a shelter for immigrants in Matamoros, Mexico, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, pointed to stiffer U.S. penalties for repeat offenders as well as brutal criminal groups that control the Mexican side of the border as reasons for the immigration decline.
“The Mexican cartels are taking over, are actually being like the border patrols on this side,” Ballesteros said. “They threaten them, ‘if you don't pay, what we're going to do is we're going to cut your head off.' That's the worst, the worst, the worst part,” he said.
Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at Pew who co-wrote the analysis, said Mexican immigration may never return to its height during the housing and construction boom, even with the U.S. economy recovering. He noted longer-term factors such as a shrinking Mexican work force.
He said government figures now show a clear shift among Mexican workers already in the U.S. who are returning home. He said those figures indicate that many immigrants are giving up on life in the U.S., feeling squeezed by increasing enforcement and limited opportunities that they don't see improving anytime soon.
About 1.4 million Mexicans left the U.S. between 2005 and 2010, double the number who did so a decade earlier. In the meantime, the number of Mexicans who entered the U.S. fell sharply to about 1.4 million, putting net migration from Mexico at a standstill. More recent figures suggest that most of the movement is now heading back to Mexico, accounting for the drop in the illegal immigrant population.
During the same period, the population of authorized Mexican immigrants edged higher, from 5.6 million to 5.8 million.
Among the Mexican immigrants who leave the U.S., an estimated 5 to 35 percent are deported while the rest opt to go back voluntarily, often taking U.S.-born children with them. Those who were in the U.S. illegally and returned to Mexico also are increasingly saying they will not try to come back — about 20 percent, compared with 7 percent in 2005.
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