What has happened with immigration to the United States?

Mexican migration to the United States has a long history extending back more than a century. Immigrants have crossed the northern border for political reasons, especially during the Mexican Revolution of 1910, but typically for economic reasons, in search of a better standard of living. Today, the Mexican-born population in the United States totals nearly 11.5 million, five times as many migrants as from any other country. Of those individuals, approximately 59 percent are undocumented immigrants. As of 2013, a total of 54 million people, or 17 percent of the US population, were Hispanics. Mexicans accounted for nearly two-thirds of that figure. The dramatic increase in the Mexican-born population has occurred since World War II, and especially since the 1980s, when Mexicans went from 12 percent of the foreign-born population (41.3 million) to 28 percent in 2013. Current estimates suggest that foreign-born individuals will reach 129 million in 2060 (30 percent of the population). However, from 2009 to 2014, when 870,000 Mexicans came to the United States, 1 million actually returned to Mexico. According to BBVA Bancomer, eight out of ten Mexicans who return to their homeland end up in the informal economy, earning the equivalent of $61 a week, compared with the $245 they would earn in the United States. However, it is important to point out that the dramatic increase in drug-related violence and criminal activity since 2008 has led to an entirely different rationale for thousands of Mexicans seeking safety across the border. Statistical research, controlling for the traditional explanations for immigration from Mexico, suggests that more than a quarter million immigrants had already sought refuge in the United States by 2014 because of violence in their own country. The economic consequences of immigration are always highlighted in these discussions, but what is not well known to the US public are the political effects. Those Mexicans who live abroad become more tolerant of different religions, share less rigid political views, and become more tolerant of different sexual orientations than their compatriots at home. Furthermore, former migrants become more receptive to democratic participation and involvement in nonelectoral political activities, thus introducing and reinforcing favorable views of democracy.

Mexican immigration in the past decade has become a volatile domestic policy issue in the United States because of the size of the undocumented population, the fact that most Mexicans cross the border between the two countries illegally, and the economic impact of the largest concentration of immigrants on numerous services in local US communities, especially health and education services. The economic recession in 2008 introduced other factors, including the perception among many US workers that immigrants are taking away jobs. Symbolically and disproportionately, the perception that undocumented immigrants are a source of crime also has an impact on public opinion even if in reality federal statistics do not support this belief. The largest concentrations of Mexican immigrants can be found in California, Texas, Arizona, and Illinois, the largest of all being in Los Angeles. After 2000, undocumented immigrants could be found in increasing numbers in nearly every state until, after 2009, the outflow of immigrants from the United States began to exceed the inflow and the total number of immigrants from Mexico declined.

Most serious observers of undocumented immigration agree that immigration reform is critical. The majority of Americans also agree with the need for immigration reform. In fact, a Pew Research Center Foundation poll in 2015 found that 89 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats favored major reforms. Laws governing immigration have remained largely unchanged since the mid-1960s. President George W. Bush intended to introduce immigration reform in Congress, but his efforts were derailed by the September 11 terrorist attacks. The fundamental weakness of current immigration laws is that few individuals are able to come to the United States temporarily or permanently for work-related reasons. Statistics from Homeland Security in 2013 revealed that 66 percent of all new legal permanent residents obtained residency based on family ties, while only 16 percent did so through employment-based preferences.

Contrary to what many Americans believe, when the US economy declines, the number of Mexican immigrants also declines. Typically, critics identify the economic costs of undocumented migrants without mentioning their economic contributions. Poorly paid migrants work extensively in numerous urban services, in construction, and in the agricultural sector. The cost of vegetables, fruits, poultry, and other US food products, for example, is subsidized by the low cost of hundreds of thousands of Mexican migrant workers, documented and undocumented, who are employed in these and other important economic sectors. Mexican migrants, through economic remittances sent back to their families in Mexico exceeding $21 billion yearly since 2005, also contribute directly and significantly to the economic development of their country of origin, which in the long run will reduce migration to the United States. Remittances, which reached $25 billion in 2015, have replaced sales of oil for the first time in history as Mexico's most important source of foreign income. Western Union reports that 44 percent of the households that receive remittances are headed by women, who use these funds to cover such basic necessities as food, housing, health, and education. Remittances have also had significant social consequences. A study in 2014 reported that they reduce the number of homicides in Mexico and that an increase of 1 percent of the households receiving remittances reduces homicides by 0.04 percent. The passage of a controversial immigration bill in Arizona in 2010 was a consequence in large part of Congress's failure to address immigration reform and congressional members' failure to educate themselves and their constituencies about the complexities, both positive and negative, of undocumented immigration. Donald Trump, during the Republican presidential primary, and again during the general election, reinforced such consequences by offering brash, highly offensive comments about Mexican immigrants. In addition to proposing building a wall between the two countries, and billing Mexico for the costs, he subsequently said he would confiscate the necessary funds from these remittances. Both US Treasury officials and the director of Mexico's Federal Reserve Bank have challenged the legality and wisdom of such a policy. Since taking office, President Trump issued an executive order to build a wall between both countries despite the fact that only 42 percent of Americans supported that policy in January 2017. Interestingly, the Mexican government, in late 2015 and early 2016, perhaps in part as a response to such comments, began instructing its consular offices to encourage the 5.4 million legal immigrants who are eligible to become naturalized American citizens to apply for that status.

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