By Kevin Sieff
URUAPAN, Mexico — Not long ago, it seemed as if every young person in this city was heading north, part of a mass exodus from Mexico that sent millions of people to the United States illegally.
But that flow has since slowed to a trickle. Migration from Mexico has dropped 90 percent over the past 20 years; this year, for the first time ever, Guatemala and Honduras are on pace to surpass it as the leading sources of illegal immigration to the United States.
The young men and women of Uruapan, which has grown to become the world’s avocado capital, are doing something historic: They’re staying here.
Jose Garduno Hernandez, 33, works as an agricultural engineer, inspecting avocado orchards that send their vegetables to the United States.
“Our parents saw no other option but to migrate,” he said. “But for us, we see alternatives.
“If I go to the United States, it will be as a tourist.”
The dramatic changes in migration flows from Mexico are the product of multiple factors. Among them: the growth of the country’s economy, an aging population, more visas for temporary work and increased U.S. border enforcement.
Those factors might seem loosely connected, but analysts say the sharp decline reflects a natural pattern that’s likely to be repeated in Central America as the populations of Guatemala and Honduras age and as their economies grow.
“That’s what history shows from countries all over the world,” said Princeton University’s Douglas Massey, founder of the 37-year study known as the Mexican Migration Project.
“Migration reaches its peak and then it comes down,” he said. “They reach a certain level of development and then it slows down.”
President Trump has suggested that migration is best slowed through enforcement — such as sending troops to the border and building a wall — and changes in America’s asylum system. The dramatic collapse of migration from Mexico has received almost no public attention from the White House. But examining what happened here could serve as a useful window into the future of immigration to the United States.
Fewer than 75,000 Mexicans have been apprehended at the U.S. border so far this year. The number apprehended from Guatemala, a country with less than one-seventh of Mexico’s population, is more than 132,000.
In Guatemala, some analysts see a version of what Mexico was two decades ago: a country approaching its “migration hump” — the peak of a wave that will rise and fall as such flows typically do.
“The same story played out in Italy, Ireland and the Czech Republic many years before it played out in Mexico,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. “And it probably will play out in Central America, too, as the population gets older and the economies expand. But it’s not predetermined when or how it will happen.”
Jorge Durand, a scholar at the University of Guadalajara, has studied migration from the Los Altos de Jalisco region for 30 years. When he began working there, he said, “it was like everyone was leaving for the United States.”
But when Durand returned for another round of research last year, he observed “a radical change.”
“Mothers there once had at least eight children,” he said. “Now, they have two. The women are working, so for the first time families have two incomes, and the region is full of economic opportunities. It’s one of the country’s biggest egg producers. They make tequila. There are clothing factories.”
“The people now say, ‘If I can make $400 per month here, why do I need to go to the United States?’ The cost of living is a lot cheaper. In the U.S. you can make three times more, but it doesn’t help if you need to pay $3,000 for a coyote and an expensive rent.”
Here in Uruapan, a city of more than 250,000 midway between Mexico City and the Pacific Ocean, residents have benefited from one particular corner of the country’s agricultural industry: The post-NAFTA boom in avocados.
Eighty-five percent of the 4 billion avocados consumed in the United States last year came from Mexico. Mexico’s avocado exports were worth $2.4 billion, which has made the city attractive for would-be migrants.
Alejandro Chavez worked in San Francisco for 20 years as a construction worker, building everything from townhouses to high-rises. He was undocumented, but his children were U.S. citizens.
When he heard about the economic growth in Uruapan, his hometown, he decided to return with his family voluntarily. They bought an apartment building in a part of Uruapan called Caltzontzin. They rent out each of the five units for $200 per month.
“There’s no reason for us to be in America when we can make a living here,” said Chavez, 38.
The family worried briefly about their 15-year-old son, Pablo, who was more comfortable in English than Spanish and who was accustomed to life in California. But Pablo’s transition has been smoother than expected.
“There’s even a Little Caesar’s here,” Pablo said. “It tastes exactly the same as San Francisco.”
In 2000, at the peak of Mexican migration to the United States, 1.5 million Mexicans were apprehended at the border. Back then, critics of illegal immigration talked about a flood of Mexicans overwhelming the United States.
But by 2019, the North American Free Trade Agreement had produced an increase in economic opportunity. Over the past two decades, average income in Mexico has risen by roughly 20 percent. Education attainment has gone up by 50 percent. Public services such as health care have dramatically improved. Immigrants in the United States sent billions in remittances back to Mexico, which paid for university educations and provided capital for small business.
The growth has been uneven. The minimum wage here is just over $5 per day. And a huge portion of the Mexican population still lives in dire poverty — 60 percent in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, for example. Many young people from those states are now migrating within the country to work. Roughly 4 percent of Mexicans are internal migrants.
Jose Bacilio, 38, makes about $25 per day picking avocados. He thinks about working in the United States — but only with a visa. He spent six months picking berries in Southern California last year on a temporary visa for agricultural workers. This year, roughly 300,000 Mexicans will receive those visas, known as H-2As, a massive expansion from previous years, which has further diminished Mexicans’ interest in illegal immigration.
“Most of my friends go with visas or they don’t go at all,” Bacilio said.
Philip Martin is professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California at Davis, and editor of Migration News and Rural Migration News.
“The bottom line,” he said, “is that we are replacing aging unauthorized farmworkers with legal Mexican H-2As.”
But while Mexicans now have greater access to U.S. visa programs, relatively few of those visas are awarded to Guatemalans and Hondurans, in part because those countries are farther from the border and transporting those workers costs more.
The demographic story is also important. In 1995, Mexico’s median age was 21. By next year, it will be about 30. Mexico’s baby boom is over, due to a combination of economic growth and cheaper contraception, thanks in part to the Mexican government’s family planning policy. That change has led to a looser labor market and a smaller population of young people, who are seen as the likeliest to migrate.
The dual factors of an improving economy and an aging population have caused declines in migration for hundreds of years across Europe and Asia. It appears that those factors are already slowing the migrant flow out of El Salvador, which has an older population than either Guatemala or Honduras, both still in the midst of their “youth bulges.” The number of Salvadorans apprehended at the U.S. border fell from 72,000 in 2016 to 31,600 in 2018.
Violence and political instability remain major factors that can influence migration from Central America. But for now, a large number of migrants from Guatemala and Honduras are primarily fleeing poverty.
For those who have studied migration here, the fact that Mexico is no longer the largest source of illegal immigration to the United States doesn’t come as a surprise. It was always an inevitability, based on how the country was developing.
“A lot of people thought it was a boom that was never going to end,” Massey said. “But I could see things unfolding in real time. I could see that the peak had been reached and rates were coming down. There’s no sign it will ever return.”
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