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Roundtable: Illegal Immigration From Mexico Declines

Roundtable: Illegal Immigration From Mexico Declines
Immigration reform is stalled, but in the meantime, the immigration picture is changing. Fewer immigrants are choosing to cross the US-Mexican border than are leaving.

Immigration reform is stalled, but in the meantime, the immigration picture is changing. Far fewer immigrants are choosing to cross the US-Mexican border: In fact the number of those who come across now equals the number who leave. That means a net zero for immigration. We're so used to worrying about too much immigration that this new trend is a little startling. What are we to make of it?

GUESTS: Tom Fudge, reporter, KPBS News and author of the KPBS blog "Off Ramp"

Roger Showley, writer, growth and development, San Diego Union Tribune


Jose Luis Jimenez, social media editor, Fronteras, KPBS News

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: And you're back on the Roundtable here on KPBS. I'm Alison St. John, and at the Roundtable today, we have Roger Shirley, writer on growth and equipment for the San Diego Union Tribune. Jose Luis Jimenez, social media editor for fronteras and KPBS news. And Tom Fudge, the reporter who focuses on transportation issues and growth, and the author of the KPBS blog on-ramp. So immigration reform is stalled, but in the meantime, the immigration picture is changing. Far fewer immigrants are choosing to cross the U.S. Mexico border. We're so used to worrying about too much immigration, that this trend is a little startling. What do we make television? If you're an immigrant with a story to tell that illustrates why fewer people are coming, give us a call. 1-888-895-5727. Or are you I business providing work permits for immigrants? How does this affect you? Jose, you're a point person on this. Tell us what the new research is telling us about the change in at this time immigration trends.

JIMENEZ: Like you said, less people are crossing the border. And that in combination with people who are returning to their countries equals to basically no growth in terms of the immigrant population. And the reasons for that are several fold, and they come from different types of research. First of all, the Mexican census just came out, and if shows a continuing decline in the Mexican families. In the '70s they had about seven children, now they're down to two children. It's a shrinking of the jobs available, which makes the market more competitive. Vis-a-vis, that means wages go up. And that's another trend that the census found. The wage disparity between U.S. and Mexico was about 10 to 1. That has dropped down to about 4 to 1. Again, it makes les sense to crossover into the United States. Also it's a lot harder to cross the border. We reinforced with more enforcement, and it's getting more expensive to hire a coyote to cross the border. In the end of the day, it's a cost benefit analysis. When people take a look at it, instead of crossing over from Mexico and going to the US< the research is finding is more people are deciding to stay in Mexico.

ST. JOHN: And Roger, there's gotta be something about what the Mexican economy is doing, and obviously the U.S. economy must be affecting this.

SHIRLEY: I was going to ask Luis -- Jose about this, because the recession in the 90s, the same thing happened. Immigration both from other states and Mexico dropped. And I think this is just temporary. I think as soon as San Diego's economy picks up, California's picks up, we're gonna have this wave of people coming back here because there will be jobs for them. I don't think we should be saying this is the end of our immigration problem. This is just a cyclical lull that's not very likely to lost very long.


ST. JOHN: Jose thinks there are some other trends now, aren't there?

JIMENEZ: What you point out is correct. And that is definitely a factor. But I think what people are pointing to are definitely the demographic shifts. Another thing, the research found that more people are getting educated in Mexico. They're completing high school, and obtaining college degrees, and once they get out, there's jobs for them in Mexico. The manufacturing industry continues to grow down there. When they graduate from college, there are places for them to work. And one thing that you talk to any immigrant, it is not their first choice to come to the United States. They would prefer to stay in their country. And as the research points out, as things continue to level out in terms of the income disparity and making it hard to come to the U.S., I think more and more people will be making that choice. But of course like you said, if the -- once the U.S. economy turns around, it'll be interesting to see if this trend holds.

ST. JOHN: I'd like to put out the call again and say if maybe you have relatives in Mexico who are deciding to stay put rather than make the journey, and if so, why. 1-888-895-5727 is the number here at the Roundtable. Maybe you've got an opinion on whether we can afford to relax the escalating focus on border security. 1-888-895-5727. And Tom, let me throw that question to you. Do you think perhaps we've been investing too much money in border security, and that it turns out is not the major disincentive to immigration?

FUDGE: I don't think if ever has been the major or primary disincentive to immigration. I think what we're looking that right now, the lull in the recession in the U.S. economy is the primary thing that discourages people from trying to get into the United States. But I think border enforcement does make a difference, because if you have to pay a coyote $50,000 in order --

JIMENEZ: No, it's not that much. It's gone from about 700 to $2,000. But again, $2,000 in Mexico is a lot of money.

FUDGE: If you had to pay $50,000 it would be really bad. But okay, it's not $50,000. It's not that much, but I was going to say --

ST. JOHN: The point you're making is well taken.

FUDGE: The point I'm making is that border enforcement does make a difference. It does discourage people from coming over. I think that this recent story is very fascinating. And I'm sure Roger has a point when he says this is just a lull, economy here is not go going well. Once things pick up here, we're going to see more people coming across, and I think that's true. But the possibility that Mexico really could become a country with a very controlled rate of population growth, high education levels, a true middle class, not just being a country where there are a few rich folks and everybody else is poor and has very few options, but to become a country with a lot of education and a true middle class, if that's kind of what we're looking at here, I think that's absolutely fascinating. And I think that could totally change the relationship between the United States and Mexico.

ST. JOHN: That's why it would be really great if we have a listener who maybe has some relatives back home who is seeing a sort of change in the incentives and the cost benefit analysis, as Jose put it, about coming across the border. 1-888-895-5727 is our number. And Grizelda is calling us from Carlsbad. Go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. I've been living here in Southern California for a long time, and I have been watching these statistics as to what the future of the economy versus the economy of Mexico. We have to understand people do you happen there are getting older. And Mexico has a young generation between 10 and 25 years old, which is a very strong powerful force for work. And people are really understanding the coexistence that we have between the border of Tijuana and the economy of San Diego. And it always has been a scapegoat, excuse for the politicians to take sides rather than having all these 20-year-old people who have been trying to lead us to pay their taxes, and productive people, and keep the good ones, and keep the bad ones. Most of the people from Mexico are hard working, employees who deserve to be treated as humans rather than treated as --

ST. JOHN: Criminals, yes. Your point is well taken. And making a point here about really a demographic shift, where it might actually be a problem for us if immigration shrills up too much. So Roger, what's your point of view.

SHIRLEY: She makes a very good point. If you tie the democratic and economic changes in Mexico, I don't know how long it will take, but pretty soon we will be equal or close to it. And it will be more like a European border state where people come and go, there's no big issue, you go there for lunch, dinner, and people have friends across the border, and it becomes a real international, wonderful bicultural, binational --

ST. JOHN: What a wonderful dream.

SHIRLEY: And everybody we've been talking about that since 1950 or something. And I agree it's also really not right to blame the Mexicans or castigate them or anything. That's not appropriate and isn't true. We depend on them for a lot of our laborer in many industries. And if their education is improving, that's all the better for our economy. So I think it's wonderful Mexico is going to progress so quickly. The worry that I think we have in all these numbers, it isn't just Mexico that we have to worry about, it's central America and South America. Those people are moving north to Mexico.

JIMENEZ: Mexico has its own immigration problem with Guatemala, and people from central America coming to their country looking for work or using Mexico as a transit point up into the United States. And as a matter of fact there was proposal renal by the Mexican government to build a wall on their southern border. But you bring up a good point. Even though the Mexican economy might be getting better, it might not be necessarily the total solution to the immigration issue. And at the end of the day, immigration reform is probably what is needed to address the problem.

ST. JOHN: Give us a picture, Jose accident of how the Mexican economy might be improving. Are there more opportunities for somebody living in a medium sized down south of the border, where in the past they all felt it was the best thing to do to go across the border.

JIMENEZ: Numbers are changing. Last year, Mexico's GDP grew by 4.5 percent. And next year 3.8 percent. That is much higher than in the United States. These are figures that are much higher than the projections here in the United States. Clearly, even though Mexico has a lot of other problems, mainly the drug war and corruption, business is finding a good place to, obviously, invest and to continue to invest there. Of course that could all change depending on how things go, but they're leading the way in terms of economic recovery.

FUDGE: I put this in the context of a discussion I've been having with people for a few years about Mexico being a failed state. And this is something we've been talking about for a while. And very seriously, that Mexico is going to be a failed state, that the corruption and the influence of the drug cartels is going to make it just like Afghanistan south of the border. And yet here we're talking about growth in the economy, we're talking about smaller families and more educational opportunities. Jose is the discussion about the failed state still there? Are we still talking about that?

JIMENEZ: Well, is it still there? Yes. Who's talking about it?

FUDGE: I guess that's the question.

JIMENEZ: I guess it's probably more on the fringe elements is where that discussion is taking place. But clearly there are serious issues in Mexico. And to their credit, they are trying to tackle them, a lot of it with the help of the United States , financially and with tactics. Of course, it remains to be seen how it's going to end up, but I think the -- yeah, I think you're right. This idea of a failed state is probably a red herring.

ST. JOHN: 1-888-895-5727. Steve is calling from city heights.

NEW SPEAKER: You're talking about the economy, and you brought it up first, the under ground economy in San Diego is too big to fail.

ST. JOHN: You mean the under ground economy with illegal immigration?

NEW SPEAKER: Immigration, and you can throw drugs in there too if you want to.

ST. JOHN: Oh, okay. Can you be more specific about what it is you think about the illegal economy in terms of -- you're talking about the drug trade across the border?

NEW SPEAKER: I'm talking about -- I have a -- I live in a residential area, and I have a garage business out here in my front yard. And I know that's not --

ST. JOHN: Will the fact that there is less immigration affect you at all, Steve?

NEW SPEAKER: It would -- yes, it definitely, in this neighborhood, it would.

ST. JOHN: Interesting. Okay. Well --

FUDGE: I think if illegal immigration is a business that's too big to fail, then if the economy improves in Mexico, then American employers have got to find a way to create visas that actually work in legitimate ways for people for laborer in Mexico to move over to the United States and work in a legitimate way, be paid decent wages. If it's too big to fail, that's what's going to happen. That's what has to happen.

ST. JOHN: But Roger, here we've got reports, studies right out of Jose -- what? The Pew center for Hispanic studies, showing that this is not just something to do with the U.S. economy being down, that there are a lot of different trends, including the demographic side of the boarder, the cost of being smuggled, the Mexican economy. Might this be something that will change the whole dynamic about immigration reform?

SHIRLEY: Well, is it a trend or a cycle? If it's a trend, then it's going to be changing everything. I think both sides of the border will be better off for it if Mexico leaps ahead and does become a great economy. My favorite topic on this is as Grizelda said in the beginning, the young people need jobs and everything, and the baby boomers aging, I think a lot of the baby boomers in their '70s and '80s should be taken care of in Baja California in nursing homes and thing, and that will be a wonderful cross border relationship.

ST. JOHN: Tom?

FUDGE: We'll be headed there in what? 10, 20 years?

SHIRLEY: I think we could promote that, and I think that would do wonders in many ways improving their medical care and our medical budgets and what not.

ST. JOHN: 1-888-895-5727. And Rick is calling from San Diego. What point would you like to make Rick?

NEW SPEAKER: . Hi. My parents came from Mexico, and the funny thing that I find interesting -- and I have gone through several landscapers who have come from Mexico as well. My mom has a house in Mexico where she's planning to retire because her dollars will go farther. And I've already had two landscapers that left and gone back to Mexico because they made enough money to live more comfortably down there. And I was speaking to my recent landscaper who's planning to do the same thing. It's already been expressed that there's been a population change as far as baby boomers back in the past in Mexico, having seven children, going back down to two. Many of those who came over are planning to go back because of the economy, and not just the economy, but when they retire, their money will go farther.

ST. JOHN: Interesting. That's a good -- Jose.

JIMENEZ: Talking to immigrants, they never plan to stay their whole lives in the U.S. it's always a temporary -- they see it as a temporary job, make enough money, perhaps build their home in their hometown, get a plot of land, and eventually move back. So the point he's making is a good one.

ST. JOHN: This is an interesting trend, and it remains to be seen if it's just a temporary fluctuation in the immigration trends or if this is something a whole new dynamic. And we'll keep following this. In the next segment, redevelopment agencies stand to lose millions under the new law that the state legislature passed as part of the budget. What does it mean to our dream budgets?