North of the U.S.-Mexico border, Republican presidential candidates are talking tough on illegal immigration, with one proposing — perhaps in jest — an electrified fence to deter migrants.
But data from both sides of the border suggest that illegal immigration from Mexico is already in fast retreat, as U.S. job shortages, tighter border enforcement and the frightening presence of criminal gangs on the Mexican side dissuade many from making the trip.
Mexican census figures show that fewer Mexicans are setting out and many are returning — leaving net migration at close to zero, Mexican officials say. Arrests by the U.S. Border Patrol along the southwestern frontier, a common gauge of how many people try to cross without papers, tumbled to 304,755 during the 11 months ended in August, extending a nearly steady drop since a peak of 1.6 million in 2000.
The scale of the fall has prompted some to suggest that a decades-long migration boom may be ending, even as others argue that the decline is only momentary.
"Our country is not experiencing the population loss due to migration that was seen for nearly 50 years," Rene Zenteno, a deputy Mexico interior secretary for migration matters, has said.
Douglas Massey, an immigration scholar at Princeton University, said surveys of residents in Mexican migrant towns he has studied for many years found that the number of people making their first trip north had dwindled to near zero.
"We are at a new point in the history of migration between Mexico and the United States," Massey said in a Mexico City news conference in August hosted by Zenteno.
Experts in Mexico say the trend is primarily economic. Long-standing back-and-forth migration has been thrown off as the U.S. downturn dried up jobs — in construction and restaurants, for example — that once drew legions of Mexican workers.
About 12.5 million Mexican immigrants live in the United States, slightly more than half without papers, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
These days, Mexicans in the United States have discouraging words for loved ones about prospects for work up north. U.S. contractors who used to recruit in Mexico likewise have little to offer.
"What stimulates migration is the need for workers," said Genoveva Roldan, a scholar at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "Right now, the migrant networks are functioning to say, 'Don't come — there's no work.' "
Juan Carlos Calleros, a researcher at Mexico's National Migration Institute, said the agency's surveys have found that a large share of Mexican migrants coming home on their own or sent back by the Border Patrol had spent just a month or two on U.S. soil and returned because they had no work.
Alongside the bleak jobs picture is a trek that has grown riskier and more expensive because of stepped-up enforcement on the U.S. side, a crackdown that at the same time has prompted many migrants to stay in the United States rather than try to cross back and forth. Migrants also cite an increasingly hostile political climate north of the border, as expressed in state laws targeting undocumented immigrants.
"It keeps getting harder and harder," said 35-year-old Joel Buzo, who returned to the central state of Guanajuato after a three-month search in the U.S. turned up only irregular, poorly paid work tearing up old railroad tracks in Utah. He lasted six more months before giving up.
Buzo, a musician, said it's easier to get by in Mexico, even though jobs are also scarce. He has no plans to travel north again.
"What's happening up there is happening here," he said by telephone from the migrant-heavy town of Romita. "But it's worse there."
In Guanajuato, long one of the country's biggest migrant-sending states, thousands of Mexicans have come back, but "it hasn't been a massive return," said Susana Guerra, who heads the state's migrant affairs office. She calls the decline in northward migration a "spasm" — not a lasting reality.
Safety in northern Mexico has also become a growing worry for would-be migrants.
Nearly 200 people, many of them U.S.-bound Mexican migrants, were killed in the northern state of Tamaulipas last spring after being seized from buses by gunmen believed to be tied to the Zetas drug gang. A year earlier, 72 migrants from Central and South America were massacred in the same area.
"It's not worth it — for now," Calleros said.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon's administration has sought a measure of credit for the migration decline by promoting the idea that improved social conditions and services in Mexico, such as broadened health insurance, are easing "push" factors that encourage would-be migrants to go. Mexican officials say falling birthrates have helped by relieving population pressures on communities.
But skeptics point to a stubborn shortage of jobs in Mexico, lingering huge gaps in pay between the two countries and figures that show a growing number of Mexicans in poverty. A drop in the flow of Central American migrants is a further sign that the U.S. labor market — not conditions at home — determines whether migration is up or down, some experts say.
And some migration specialists say there are still many parts of Mexico, especially in the impoverished south, with a ready supply of people willing to make the journey.
The real test of whether the migration drop represents a lasting change will come when the U.S. economy gets back on its feet.
Carlos Mireles, who lives in the town of Manuel Doblado, Guanajuato, said two nephews moved to Mexico City after they lost their restaurant jobs in Chicago and spent six months without work. But the young men, in their 20s, haven't given up on life north of the border.
"Their idea is to go back to Chicago when things get better, because wages are so little here in Mexico," Mireles said. "That's why they want to return to the United States."
Cecilia Sánchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.