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The return of migration from Mexico? Report suggests an uptick

File photo: Undocumented Mexican immigrants walk through the Sonoran Desert after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border border on January 19, 2011 into the Tohono O'odham Nation, Arizona.
File photo: Undocumented Mexican immigrants walk through the Sonoran Desert after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border border on January 19, 2011 into the Tohono O'odham Nation, Arizona.
John Moore/Getty Images

So how much better is the economy doing? Because if an uptick in migration from Mexico is any sort of indication, there must be hope.

Such an increase is what researchers from the University of Southern California's Tomas Rivera Policy Institute and Baja California's El Colegio de la Frontera Norte are reporting. It's been just a few months since the story of migration from Mexico coming to a standstill was national news. But even then, experts warned that this inbound migration depends much on the U.S. economy. When times are tight, more would-be migrants stay put. When they aren't, they head north looking for work.

From the new report:

The survey data, consistent with other indicators cited in this report, show that the number of undocumented migrants heading into the United States declined steadily for four years starting at the beginning of 2008 but that the pace slowed in 2011 and then reversed. In the first two quarters of 2012, the border survey registered annual gains in the undocumented flow for the first time since the onset of the Great Recession.

Although the numbers are still small and the time frame is short, the survey data from 2012 suggest that the overall flow of migrants from Mexico to the United States has substantially adjusted to the combined effects of the economic downturn, heightened U.S. immigration enforcement efforts, and a wave of criminal violence in Mexico’s border region. More Mexicans are coming north and fewer of those already in the United States are heading back south, according to an analysis of the survey data that is supported by indicators drawn from official sources.

The migration scenario in the report is drawn not from U.S. federal border apprehension statistics, which have been on the downswing for years, but from an ongoing data collection project in Mexico called the Border Survey of Mexican Migration, which since 1993 has tracked data on the number of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, legally or illegally, and includes information on those who return.

The report notes that after years of decline in the pace of northbound migration, this decline began to slow in the second half of 2010, and that "the first two quarters of 2012 the flow marked small gains compared with the previous year." From the report:

In the first quarter of 2012, the survey registered an unauthorized flow 42 percent higher than in same quarter of 2011. The second quarter marked a year-over-year increase of 14 percent. Six months of modestly higher volumes might not be notable except that the trend had been solidly in the opposite direction for four years.

Which is correct. If the data presents an accurate picture, it's noteworthy in the sense that it would be the first increase observed in northbound migration from Mexico in years.

Just last year, U.S. Border Patrol numbers indicated that northbound border crossing apprehensions were at their lowest level since the early 1970s, with would-be migrants foregoing the trip in light of a weak U.S. economy and border enforcement that has made crossing costlier and more difficult.

The USC-Colegio de la Frontera Norte report goes on to state that the data available through mid-2012 "suggest that the net flow could move into positive territory again with any uptick of demand in the U.S. labor market."

There hasn't been that much of a discernible recovery, but there have been job gains, and many have tended to be in lower-wage sectors, jobs that have traditionally attracted immigrants. Even construction, the decline of which squeezed many an unauthorized worker, seems to be doing slightly better.

Whether the migration report's observations bear out in other data remains to be seen, and time will take care of that. But in an election year, chances are they'll show up in the political discourse either way.