Economic factors have done more to deter immigrants to the US than political policies

Follow the money.
Follow the money.
Image: Retuers/Mike Blake
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Donald Trump is determined to deter undocumented immigrants from coming to the United States. It may be a matter of too much, too late.

Of all Trump’s policy promises, cracking down on immigration is perhaps the one his administration has been most committed to. The US president has ordered the end of the DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) that protects the children of undocumented immigrants from deportation, signed an executive order increasing the number of immigrants prioritized for deportation, and seems resolute in building a multibillion-dollar wall along the border with Mexico. Deportations in the first six months of Trump’s presidency were up more than 30% from the same period in 2016.

But when it comes to deterring immigration, a recently published research (pdf) by economists at the University of California, San Diego argues that the job has already been done by the changing economics and demographics of the US and the countries that send the most migrants to America. The huge rise of undocumented immigrants in the US, from 3.5 million in 1990 to over 12 million in 2007, was driven by socioeconomic conditions that no longer exist. The US’s undocumented population has declined slowly over the past decade, to 11.3 million last year, according to the Pew Research Center.

While the UC San Diego researchers acknowledge that increased border enforcement has had an effect on reducing immigration to the US, they believe three trends have played an even more important role.

1️⃣ Low-income Americans no longer earn that much more than middle-income people in Latin America

The main incentive of for most immigrants to the US is the opportunity to make a lot more money. A middle-income worker in Mexico, Honduras, or Guatemala has a lower income than even a relatively poor person in the US. (Latin American countries account for the majority of undocumented workers in the US.)

Yet this difference is slowly receding. Prior to the global financial crisis, the median income in Mexico was a little over 40% of what the 25th percentile earner in the US made. In 2015, it was closer to 60%. Other Latin American countries that are major contributors to US immigration, generally poorer than Mexico, saw a similar rise. As a result, the incentive for people to uproot their lives and move to the US has greatly diminished.

2️⃣ Latin American countries are no longer so economically volatile

In the 1990s and the early 2000s, the economies of the Mexico and other Latin American countries sending immigrants to the US were significantly more volatile than the US. Periods of robust GDP growth would be followed by wrenching recessions. An extreme example of this took place in Mexico during the peso crisis of 1994, which led to a 6% contraction of GDP in 1995.

The comparative calm of the US economy was attractive to prospective immigrants. But since the financial crisis in 2008, Latin American economies have stabilized and the US is no longer such a comparative beacon of economic reliability.

3️⃣ There are relatively fewer working-age immigrants

Although the US baby boom ended in the 1960s, the Latin American baby boom lasted through the 1980s. One consequence of this is that in the 1990s and 2000s, there was a huge supply of young workers in Latin America, and huge demand for such workers in the US. The UC San Diego researchers argue that this glut of supply sent many Latin Americans over the border. They demonstrate this by showing that within Mexico, even when states had similar economic conditions, larger birth cohorts in a state led to increased immigration from that area to the US.

That baby boom has now passed, and so has the supply of these workers. For example, the number of 15-40 year olds in Mexico is now declining compared with the United States, and researchers expect this trend to continue. This ultimately means fewer undocumented immigrants to deter.

Eventually, the US may stop trying to keep immigrants out, but instead work to attract them. These young workers are needed to keep the economy going and pay for the old-age entitlements Americans have come to expect.