¡Ay Caramba! Mexican Immigration Isn't Going Away on Its Own

By Mark Krikorian on August 3, 2005

National Review Online, August 3, 2005

Imagine that you're the White House and your own supporters aren't buying the immigration nonsense that you're shoveling. You say the law can't be enforced - and the Republican rank and file (and a lot of others) respond that we've never even tried. You insist that work won't get done without immigrants, and critics ask how the beds get made in Pennsylvania. You plead that Mexico is our blood brother, yet anyone who can read the newspaper sees that Mexico shields thousands of fugitive murderers, and undermines American cohesion by vigorously promoting dual citizenship.

Solution? Pretend immigration will go away on its own!

This apparent new strategy made its debut in Monday's New York Times in an op-ed by Republican pollster and spinmeister Matthew Dowd. A gifted political strategist not previously known for expertise in demography, Dowd claims that falling birthrates in Mexico will lead to "a substantial decrease in illegal immigration from Mexico in the next 20 years."

It's true that Mexico's "total fertility rate" (the number of babies the average woman will have in her lifetime) has fallen from nearly 7 in the 1950s to 2.5 in 2003, according to the United Nations, and will actually drop below the U.S. rate within a few years. This is part of a trend of falling fertility in virtually every nation of the world; as Ben Wattenberg wrote in his recent book Fewer, "never have birth and fertility rates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long, in so many places, so surprisingly."

But if you were to look at how fertility trends and immigration overlap, you might well reach the opposite conclusion from Dowd. In 1970, when Mexico still had a total fertility rate of well over 6, the Mexican immigrant population in the United States was less than 800,000. Over the next 30 years, Mexico's fertility fell by more than half, yet its immigrant population grew more than ten-fold. In itself, this doesn't disprove Dowd's claim, but it sure muddies it up.

And as it happens, Mexico's census agency actually examined this question in a 2001 report (summarized here), and found that under any set of economic assumptions, mass immigration to the U.S. would continue for at least a generation, with between 3.5 and 5 million people per decade moving north. Even the most wildly optimistic scenario projected that annual immigration would be higher a generation from now than it is today.

This is true because Dowd's facile Malthusian idea that high birthrates are the primary driver of emigration turns out to be false. Sure, if a country's birthrate fell far enough, for long enough, mathematics alone would dictate that there would be no one left to emigrate. But such a reductio ad absurdum tells us nothing about the real world.

Russia, for instance, has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world and yet continues to send large numbers of immigrants to the United States. Congo, on the other hand, has one of the highest fertility rates in the world, and sends few immigrants anywhere. Japan and South Korea both have extremely low fertility, and yet one sends lots of immigrants while the other doesn't. Or how about Brazil, whose fertility rate has fallen to about the U.S. level, but is only now becoming a major immigrant-sending country.

The reality is that immigration may begin for a variety of push or pull reasons - poverty and social disorder at home, greater economic opportunity and social and political freedom abroad - but it continues because of the social networks that are created by immigration, which connect potential immigrants in the sending country with family and friends in the receiving country. It's not quite a version of Newton's law, that an immigration process in motion will stay in motion, but it's pretty close. Immigration from Europe, for instance, didn't stop because there was no one left who wanted to leave, but rather because the networks were disrupted, by World Wars I and II, the Depression, and most importantly by U.S. policy that changed the immigration rules.

So until we do something to interrupt the immigration networks that bring people out of Mexico - like vigorous enforcement of the immigration law, reductions in legal immigration, and avoiding a new guestworker program - we're going to see continued mass immigration during the lifetime of everyone reading this article. And immigration may actually increase - a lot - if the narco-anarchy in parts of Mexico spreads more widely, or if the left-wing populist mayor of Mexico City is elected president of the country next year.

More than 15 years ago, a high-immigration activist said during a radio debate with me that Mexico would soon stop sending people north, once a demographic bulge worked itself out. This assertion was followed soon after by the biggest wave of Mexican immigration ever.

Let's hope Matt Dowd's prediction of an end to Mexican immigration doesn't portend the same kind of deluge.

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.