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Drop in Illegal Immigration Opens Door for Real Reform

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
With unemployment rising and a U.S. debt-crisis looming, Americans haven't had much good news lately. But there is one bright spot on the policy front: Illegal immigration from Mexico has virtually stopped.

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.

The number of secondary schools in Jalisco doubled in the last decade -- as they have in other Mexican states, as well, including in Chiapas, one of the poorest areas in the country. The number of Mexicans who have at least a bachelor's degree has doubled in the last decade and now is over 800,000.

American immigration has always been driven by a push-pull phenomenon. Bad economic prospects pushed people to leave their native lands, and the lure of plentiful, well-paying jobs here have pulled them to the United States. But the process has reversed. Fewer Mexicans feel pushed from their own country thanks to improved economic conditions there, while the weakened U.S. economy has eliminated the pull of American jobs.

Perhaps this turn of events will prompt politicians to tone down the illegal immigration hysteria and enact a sane, market-based immigration policy. America still needs immigrants -- they are a major reason for our economic vitality. But they should come legally, if we'd let them.

We need to expand the number of legal immigrants to the United States and do it in a way that benefits our economy. We need both highly skilled workers and those with lower skills but a strong work ethic to take jobs where we have labor shortages today.

We have too few engineers, doctors and scientists -- and many of those we're training in our universities are foreign-born with no prospect of being allowed to stay here after they graduate. But we also have too few workers in some lower-skilled occupations. Even with unemployment at 9.2 percent, Americans aren't lining up to take jobs picking lettuce or working in poultry processing plants.

Now that the illegal immigration problem is receding, it's time to get on with legal immigration reform.

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