To its southern neighbor, the United States once represented hope, safety and prosperity. But with the effects of the Great Recession still lingering and tougher enforcement along the U.S. border, fewer Mexicans see a reason to leave their homeland.
"There isn't much work because the economy there is still bad," said Eleuterio Hernandez Hernandez, who for 26 years made frequent unauthorized trips to the U.S. from San Bartolome Quialana, a small city in the state of Oaxaca in central Mexico.
Though the U.S. economy continues to rebound, that hasn't always translated to into low-skilled jobs for border crossers. "There is no work for us immigrants," he said.
At 51, Hernandez Hernandez, has stopped traveling north for work. "I'm too old and it's too difficult."
Workplace raids by immigration agents, nose-diving birthrates at home and the economic slowdown north of the border have convinced 47% of Mexicans surveyed that life in their native country is as good or better than what would await them if they crossed into the U.S., according to findings released Thursday by the Washington-based Pew Research Center.
"I would not say that Mexico has more of a pull," said study author and Pew research associate Ana Gonzalez-Barrera. "But the United States isn't as attractive."
The report echoes studies that had recorded drops in illegal immigration, but it delves into the reasons driving the trend and contrasts the drop with the number of Mexicans who leave the United States.
According to census numbers from the U.S. and Mexico, since 2005 Mexican nationals have begun to leave the U.S. in greater numbers than at any point in history, and the largest share of those who return to Mexico are immigrants who had been in the country illegally.
The number of people leaving the U.S. began to fall off in 2010. By 2014, fewer Mexican nationals were leaving the U.S. than a decade earlier, but even fewer were entering the country from Mexico. The result, Gonzalez-Barrera argues, is the first modern instance of the migration scales tipping: More Mexican nationals are leaving the U.S. than the number of Mexicans entering the country.
"We haven't seen that since the 1930s," Gonzalez-Barrera said.
Sneaking into the United States was easier in the past. When Hernandez Hernandez slipped into Los Angeles from Tijuana in 1981, it cost just $300. He took jobs as a cook in West Los Angeles and Santa Monica.
In San Bartolome Quialana, newer brick houses compete with traditional adobe houses, and donkeys share the road with cars amid Oaxaca's low foothills. Hernandez Hernandez's modest storefront, called Abarrotes California, or California Groceries, is a testament to the money he earned in the U.S.
But then, like a healthy percentage of Mexicans polled by Pew, he began to feel as though the tightened border security and dampened economic opportunities north of the border made the increasingly costly crossings less appealing. A smuggler in 2005 asked $2,000 to get him across the border.
In 2007, with work drying up and Hernandez Hernandez missing his family, he returned to San Bartolome Quialana and then stayed put.
To those who advocate for more stringent immigration standards, the report's main assertion — that there are conclusively more Mexicans leaving the U.S. than entering the country — is a red herring and fails to paint an accurate picture of problems along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"The point of this report and the way it'll be used is there's no more concern about the border, Republicans are idiots and the issue has faded," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors restrictive immigration policies. "What it really shows is that a narrow focus on the southern border is incomplete."
The report focused on migration of Mexicans, not other nationalities. Last year and this fall, U.S. immigration authorities detected an uptick in illegal immigration from Central America.
The number of immigrants from China and India rivals that of Mexicans, and nearly all illegal immigration from those countries is the result of visa overstays. Krikorian said that means it's time for a new approach to immigration enforcement that focuses on tracking down visa overstays and enforces illegal immigration checks at work sites.
Mexico has not become more alluring, Gonzalez-Barrera said, despite the presence of more jobs in the country — and fewer births means fewer people in the labor pool. But the image of the U.S. has been tarnished among Mexicans, according to opinion polling cited by Pew.
About half of all adults in Mexico still think that those who have left for the United States lead better lives than those left behind, but the growing share who don't see much of a difference is the key to understanding the most recent cycle of immigration.
In the 1990s, Mexico was burdened by an economic downturn, and a tremendous number of people born in the 1970s were finally entering the labor pool. Seeking a way to earn money, children and adults younger than 30 made up 50% of immigrants into the U.S. from Mexico in 1990, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and its American Community Survey.
The North American Free Trade Agreement also led Mexicans out of their country's farm sector, Gonzalez-Barrera said, and the U.S. border was so porous that there was little disincentive to stay in Mexico. "Anybody who could come across could get in," she
In the 2000s, the U.S. began to change its border policy. It now criminalizes people who cross the border more than once. Highly publicized workplace raids that rounded up scores of unauthorized workers — for example, at a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa — reinforced the idea of a more watchful federal government.
From 2005 to 2009, census data from the U.S. and Mexico cited by Pew showed about the same number of Mexican nationals entering the country as leaving.
Those who are still coming to the U.S. are doing so for the money, Gonzalez-Barrera said.
"U.S. wages are still attractive to migrants," she said. "There is still much more to be earned here than in Mexico."
The Mexican National Survey of Demographic Dynamics found that the pull of family factors most into Mexicans' desire to return home. The survey, conducted in 2014, found that 6 in 10 Mexicans who moved to the U.S. after 2009 and returned to Mexico before 2014 said they returned to reunite with family or start a family of their own.
Far smaller shares said they had been deported (14%) or returned to look for work (6%).
For news on immigration and other issues in the Southwest, follow @nigelduara on Twitter.
Duara reported from Tempe, Ariz., and Carcamo from San Bartolome Quialana, Mexico.