January 6, 2005
Volume 7 / Number 1
Lower fertility rates and economic development in Mexico (and points
south) will lead to lower immigration levels into the United States, but the timing of this downward shift could be delayed if Mexico falls back into the social and economic turmoil that has marked so much of its history.
Steven W. Mosher
Fewer Workers in Mexico Mean Fewer Immigrants—Eventually
Mexico’s fertility rate has fallen dramatically from 6.8 children per woman in the late ‘60s and continues its downward slide. “The goal of the current population policy is to reach replacement rate fertility,” National Population Council (CONAPO) Director Elena Zuniga told PRI last year. “We will reach this target of 2.1 children in 2005-2006.” Her chief demographer, present at the meeting, disagreed. He indicated that the latest numbers showed that Mexico was already having just enough children to replace the current population. But they both agreed that the goal of CONAPO was to drive down the average number of children born to Mexican women to 1.8 or so, well below replacement.
Currently, about 500,000 Mexicans, legal and illegal, settle in the United States each year, according to the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). There is little question that, other things being equal, Mexico’s dramatic decline in fertility will eventually drive down these numbers. But when will this happen?
Ben Wattenberg, who has long bucked the conventional belief in overpopulation and warned of the world’s coming underpopulation crisis, wrote Feb. 20, 2001, “Immigration is the big bogeyman, but it is clearly destined to shrink. Why? Mexico will run out of potential emigrants.
How so? Mexico is becoming a modern country. And modern countries have low birthrates. . . . Moreover, Mexico is climbing the economic ladder.”
That Mexico, with a falling labor supply due to falling birthrates and greater domestic demand for labor due to economic growth, should send fewer economic migrants into the United States seems hard to dispute.
However, Mexico’s fertility rates began their dramatic drop decades ago and her economy grew rapidly in the ‘80s, yet Mexican immigration hit highs in the 1990s and shows no sign of slowing down. How long until the influx slows, assuming the continued absence of any substantial governmental policy changes that reduce immigration?
Some say 25 years or more. “Mexico’s National Population Council (CONAPO), an arm of the powerful Ministry of the Interior, issued a report in November 2001 on migration to the United States through 2030,” wrote David Simcox, president of Migration Demographics, in March 2002. “Among its findings: Contrary to previous assurances, the Mexican government acknowledges in this report that falling birthrates and increased economic development in Mexico will not lead to a reduction in immigration to the United States for at least three decades. The Mexican government projects that mass immigration to the United States will continue at between 3.5 and 5 million people per decade until at least 2030. Even assuming strong economic growth and declining birthrates in Mexico, and weak demand for workers in the United States, immigration in 30 years is still projected to be nearly 400,000 people a year.”
Of course, CONAPO is in the business of population control, and may inflate its population and immigration projections to justify its generous budget. CONAPO, for example, argues that high levels of immigration will continue even as the number of job seekers entering the Mexican economy each year starts to fall. Net job seeker growth is not expected to reach zero until 2040, said CONAPO. “The CONAPO report, La Migracion Mexico-Estados Unidos, finds that the rapid annual growth in the number of job seekers in Mexico, nearly 3% annually in the late 1990s, is leveling off and will fall below 1% yearly by 2025,” wrote Simcox. “In actual numbers, the 1.3 million new entrants yearly to the labor force in 1995 will decline to 1.0 million yearly by 2010 and to 500,000 a year in 2025, to zero growth by 2040, according to Mexican estimates.”
But there may be more to CONAPO’s arguments than just internal politicking. Steve Camarota, Director of Research at CIS, said that dropping fertility rates have yet to slow emigration out of the countries experiencing them. “The decline in fertility in the ‘70s in Mexico from the ‘60s should have led to a drop in immigration in the ‘90s,” he said.
“But it didn’t. It increased.” The same is true for other nations, he said. “Emigration from the former Soviet Union countries has increased dramatically even though fertility rates have collapsed.” And unlike Mexico, “all of them are declining in population or soon will. . .,” he noted. “China’s birthrate has been below replacement level for some time now but Chinese immigration into the United States continues to accelerate.” This coincides with a tremendous economic boom in China.
Mexico’s “proximity” to and “wage differential” with the United States, plus the welcoming networks and cross-border family ties generated by the 11 million Mexicans already here, will continue to draw immigrants, said Camarota. One of the consequences of mass migration, he said, has been the reliance of “people on sending their sons to the United States instead of forcing the creation of better conditions in Mexico.”
Replacement rate fertility or no, Mexico’s population will continue increasing for decades to come. The U.N. Population Division predicts that Mexico’s population will grow from 106 million today to 140 million in 2050, according to its medium variant. Even its more historically accurate low variant (the UN is in the habit of exaggerating population growth with its so-called “medium” projections) predicts an increasing population until about 2030, when Mexico’s population will hit 120 million and then begin a gradual decline.
When will Mexico’s declining demographics translate into lower immigration? After a country has developed, not during its economic development, according to Princeton sociology professor and immigration expert Douglas S. Massey, who wrote in the American Prospect, July 1, 2003, “Among sending countries, emigration does not stem from a lack of development but from development itself. International migration has always been part and parcel of broader processes of economic growth and development. In the course of its industrialization, for example, Europe exported 54 million people. . . . What is remarkable about today’s developing nations is not that they produce emigrants but that they produce so few.”
Camarota thinks the flow from Mexico may decrease, but not for decades to come. If Mexico’s fertility decline continues, and if she stays on track economically, we may see a decline sooner. In any event America’s immigration issue—at least her Mexican slice of it—won’t be resolved by population demographics any time soon. Those who had hoped that promoting population control in the Third World would reduce immigration into the United States have so far been sorely mistaken.
Joseph A. D’Agostino is Vice President for Communications at the Population Research Institute.