The End of Mexican Immigration and Questions for the US Labor Market

In 1970 there were approximately 1 million Mexican-born immigrants living in the United States.  Today there are more than 12 million.  This is, by far, the largest influx of immigrants from a single country into the United States in history.  Some 30% of all current US immigrants were born in Mexico.  But a new Pew Hispanic Center report indicates that the net migration from Mexico has fallen to essentially zero.  Between 2005 and 2010, the wave of Mexican immigrants, legal and illegal, into the U.S. was offset by an equal number of Mexican migrants returning home (approximately 1.4 million in each direction). The low number of immigrants and high number of those returning are both unprecedented.

The proposed explanations for this trend vary from stepped up enforcement to a poor labor market in the US (along with an improved one in Mexico) but whatever the reason, it is reasonable to assume that if the trend becomes permanent, there will be significant consequences for the economies of both countries.

Mexican labor has been the linchpin of US-Mexican economic integration.  Mexican immigrants make up at least 25% of the labor force in seven states, including California, Texas, Florida, and New York.  In 36 states, they constitute at least 5% of the work force.  Mexican immigrants are more likely to come to this country younger, with less education, with poorer English ability, and less occupational skills than immigrants from other countries and thus have tended to populate low-skill, low-paying jobs.

While recent data is hard to come by, in 2000 Mexican immigrants made up 15% of the workforce in the agricultural industry and close to 10% in both the manufacturing and construction industries.  Specific areas such as landscaping, car washes, and fruit and vegetable production were over 20%.  Mexican workers became increasingly important in locations throughout the nation not previously known for large immigrant populations in the last decade, particularly the Southeast, as they were called upon to fill these low skill jobs, especially in agriculture.  And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 63 percent of all job openings by 2020 will require only a minimal education (high school or less), at a time when native-born Americans are obtaining college degrees in record numbers and are unlikely to accept positions requiring minimal education, making low skill service workers a valuable labor commodity.

It remains to be seen if and how these two trends, the decline of Mexican migration to the US and a reliance on Mexican labor for certain positions and even entire industries, will affect the American labor market, economic output, and North American integration more generally.

Posted by: Sean Norris

Sources: The Pew Hispanic Center, The Bureau of Labor Statistics, The Canadian Foundation for the Americas, The American Immigration Law Foundation

Photo Credit: USA Mexico Arizona courtesy of flickr user kreyten

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