Less than a decade ago, a half-million Mexicans were coming to the U.S. illegally every year, accounting for 60 percent of all illegal immigration. But last year, fewer than 100,000 Mexicans crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visas. And it appears that an even greater number of Mexican illegal immigrants left the U.S., resulting in a net reduction in the number of Mexican illegal immigrants living here.
The reasons are complex. Yes, state and local laws intended to make life unpleasant for illegal immigrants may have had some effect. And no doubt greater border enforcement has made it more difficult for people to cross into the U.S. illegally. But the most significant factor is that conditions in Mexico have improved to the point that many Mexicans see a better future for themselves in their homeland.
Most stories about Mexico in the American media focus on the vicious drug wars that have claimed 40,000 Mexican lives in the last five years. But there is another side of the Mexican story that gets far less attention -- the Mexican economy is booming.
In 2010, Mexican gross domestic product grew by more than 5 percent and is on pace to nearly match that rate this year. In the fourth quarter of 2010, manufacturing grew by more than 6 percent and construction by more than 4 percent over the previous year. Unemployment in 2010 was 5.5 percent. We'd be ecstatic if the American economy were growing at a similar pace.
All that growth means more jobs for Mexicans in Mexico. But it also means a higher standard of living for those who choose to stay. Family income has increased by 45 percent since 2000. Just as important, Mexican families are also much smaller than they used to be.
Mexico once had one of the highest birthrates in the world. In 1970, Mexican women gave birth to an average of seven children. The number of children born to Mexican women averages about two now, which means there are -- and will be in the future -- far fewer job-seekers than in the past.
Other social improvements bode well, too. Educational opportunities have greatly expanded in Mexico. A recent New York Times story tells of how one area, the state of Jalisco, which once sent many of its young men north in search of opportunity, now provides a chance for them to succeed at home.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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