Mounting challenges for immigrants in the United States seemingly have brought the massive influx of Mexican migrants to a halt, with a new study finding that those returning to their home country may even be outnumbering arrivals. 

The Pew Hispanic Center finds that during the period between 2005 and 2010, the total number of new immigrants to the United States from Mexico — approximately 1.37 million — was offset by the roughly 1.39 million Mexican immigrants and their American-born children who returned to Mexico. During the previous five-year period, there were 3 million new Mexican immigrants who came to the United States and fewer than 700,000 who returned to Mexico.

The Pew Center attributes the trend to a number of factors, including economic conditions in both the United States and Mexico, increased deportations of undocumented immigrants and stronger enforcement policies at the border. 

Job loss

Kevin Appleby, director of the Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, points to the decline of the U.S. economy as being the key factor in migration changes. 

“People come to look for jobs, they come to support their families,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “If those dry up or it is more difficult to get them, people are going to go where the jobs are.” 

While Mexico’s economy struggled along with that of the United States between 2007 and 2009, the Pew Center reports that Mexico has seen significantly stronger economic recovery than the United States in the past two years. Were that trend to change, however, Appleby believes that immigration numbers would increase. 

But even with more jobs available, undocumented immigrants would still face barriers to finding employment. Lorena Cabrera, immigration specialist for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Chicago, told OSV that the federal government’s e-verify program, which allows employers to check the legal status of potential employees, has made it more difficult for undocumented workers to find jobs.

“The federal government really has stepped up its action against employers who provide employment for undocumented [workers],” she said. “When this door that used to be open for immigrants now is closed, you don’t see many immigrants finding employment anymore.”

That may be contributing to the decline in immigration, Cabrera said. But her office at Catholic Charities has seen an increase in the clients it serves, who are legal residents looking to help undocumented family members obtain legal status, even though the process can be time consuming and expensive. 

immigration

“The situation is so bad out there that more people are trying to get their family members documented because they can no longer get employment being undocumented,” she said. “I think that people are more willing now to save as much money as they can to get their family members documented.” 

Scare tactics

The Pew Center notes that increased border security and record numbers of deportations — 282,000 immigrants were forced to return to Mexico in 2010 — have also contributed to the drop-off in net immigration. At the same time, states such as Arizona, Alabama and Georgia have passed laws aimed at reducing the number of undocumented immigrants within their borders. 

“The point is to drive immigrants out,” said Allison Posner, director of advocacy for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. (CLINIC). “These bills are making everything a crime. It is a crime to look for work, it is a crime to give someone a ride. I think that is the thing that is driving people away, the fact that they are fearful constantly.” 

Thus far, no data has directly linked the state laws to the turnaround in national immigration numbers, as Posner said immigrants are more likely to relocate within the United States than to leave entirely. But the laws are undoubtedly having a profound impact in immigrant communities. 

“The situation now is one of tension and fear,” said Vincentian Father Jack Kane, director of Hispanic ministry in the Archdiocese of Mobile, Ala. Though the provisions of Alabama’s law are being finalized, he said its passage has created a less-than-welcoming environment, particularly for families. 

“Many of the [immigrants] in this area have had children here who are growing up here,” he said. “They might be forced to move as a family, and no matter what the final law is, it will not be family friendly.” 

Call for reform

For Catholics working on the issue of immigration, such concerns at the local level only further highlight the need for comprehensive federal reform. Even though migration appears to have leveled off, there are still an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living on U.S. soil, of which an estimated 6.1 million are from Mexico. 

Maria Odom, executive director of CLINIC, told OSV that the toll current policies are taking on families is a top priority when it comes to repairing the current immigration system.  

“Any comprehensive immigration reform plan has to take into account family unity and has to be a reasonable approach for keeping people together,” she said. 

Appleby said the downturn in immigration provides an ideal time to look toward federal reform. Though Congress’ top priority after the election will likely be the economy, he said, there may be an opportunity to address immigration before the numbers rise again. 

“You don’t fix a bridge during rush hour,” said Appleby. “This is an opportunity for our elected officials to really look at this issue and prepare ourselves for the rest of the century when we’re going to go through booms and busts. 

“But we want a solid framework for an immigration system that serves those basic goals but also upholds human rights and human dignity.” 

Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.