WASHINGTON -- Faced with a persistently weak economy, the number of immigrants flowing into the United States from Mexico has declined for the first time in decades, according to a study released on Monday.
An analysis of census data from the U.S. and Mexican governments details the movement to and from Mexico, a nation accounting for nearly 60 percent of the illegal immigrants in the U.S. It comes amid renewed debate over U.S. immigration policy as the Supreme Court hears arguments this week on Arizona's tough immigration law.
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 the Pew Hispanic Center study. 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.
“The standstill appears to result from the weakened U.S. job market, heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations, the growing dangers associated with illegal border crossings, and changing economic and demographic conditions in Mexico,” the Pew Center said in a statement.
Much of the drop in illegal immigrants is due to the weak U.S. economy, which has shrunk construction and service-sector jobs attractive to Mexican workers following the housing bust. But increased deportations, heightened U.S. patrols and violence along the border also have played a role, as well as demographic changes, such as Mexico's declining birth rate.
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, when foreign-born residents from Mexico stood at 760,000. 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. Ballesteros, who has been deported four times, was recently caught after hopping the border fence near Nogales, Ariz.
"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," Ballesteros said.
President Barack Obama promised to deliver comprehensive immigration reform, tightening security on the Mexico border while offering millions of illegal immigrants who learn English, pay a fine the chance to become citizens, but he has so far failed to deliver.
Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney, meanwhile, supports tough enforcement. He has expressed support for Arizona's state law cracking down on illegal immigrants that is subject to an appeals hearing in the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday to determine whether the state strayed too far into the federal government's powers.
Former President George W. Bush brought the last attempt at an immigration overhaul to a vote in 2007, but it was killed off by Republicans in the U.S. Senate.
Other findings by the Pew Center:
- Illegal Mexican immigrants who have stayed in the U.S. for longer periods of time are now more likely to be sent back by authorities than before. About 27 percent of immigrants sent back had resided in the U.S. for a year or more, up from 6 percent in 2005.
- Despite an increase in Border Patrol agents, apprehensions of illegal immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border have dropped sharply - from 1 million in 2005 to 286,000 in 2011, a sign that fewer illegal immigrants are trying to enter.
- Around 30 percent of all current U.S. immigrants are Mexican-born. The next largest sending country — China, including Hong Kong and Taiwan — accounts for just 5 percent of the estimated 40 million immigrants currently in the United States (Pew corrected its earlier percentage of immigrants who are Mexican and second largest sending country).
- A typical Mexican woman is projected to have an average of 2.4 children in her lifetime, compared with 7.3 children in 1960.
- By region, Mexican-born immigrants in the U.S. are mostly likely found in the West (51 percent) and South (33 percent). About 58 percent now live in California and Texas, down from 63 percent in 2000 as immigrants spread out over the past decade in search of jobs in other states.
The story includes reporting by Reuters, the Associated Press, and msnbc.com's Sevil Omer.
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