President Donald Trump swept into office on a platform whose most clear plank was a promise to “build that wall.” As president, Trump has taken swift steps to make good on the promise – the government is already soliciting design proposals for the project.

While this might have been a handy campaign slogan, the economic forces that push and pull people across borders are changing such that the wall could be a moot barrier before it is even finished.

Any proposal to finish building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico’s border assumes that immigration from Mexico has always happened in large numbers and always will. Previous attempts to build barriers under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama — whether physical or virtual — have been prohibitively expensive and primarily succeeded in pushing illegal crossings further into the borderland deserts. As the U.S. prepares to invest tens of billions of dollars in Trump’s project, it is worth asking whether immigrants from Mexico are likely to continue coming north at the same rates, particularly given research showing that economic considerations weigh most heavily among people choosing to immigrate.

In fact, there is good reason to expect that the flow of immigration from Mexico is about to drop sharply – wall or no wall. Indeed, while it might seem like large volumes of Mexican immigration are a foregone conclusion, the flow has not always been as large, and is expected to fall sharply in the near future, as presaged by the declining rate of border crossings since 2007.

Craig McIntosh and Gordon Hanson, two economists at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy have been studying global flows of immigration for the past decade. They recently published an article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives forecasting an even steeper decline in immigration from Mexico. Their argument is built on demographic trends, and they note that the sudden end of the U.S. baby boom in the 1960s was followed 20 years later by a decline in the growth of the domestic labor force. By the 1980s, the U.S. economy was growing more than its labor force, creating a pull factor for labor.

At the same time, Mexico’s birth rate had not yet declined, which meant that the labor force population in Mexico was surging in the 1980s just as the U.S.’s began to lag. Naturally — at least to economists — the labor supply moved to where it was demanded, and so began the movement northward. Concurrent with this labor force surplus in Mexico, the 1980s were its “lost decade,” when macroeconomic instability saw Mexico default on its loans, suffer from enormous inflation and lack of investment. Mexico’s economy tanked and stuttering growth translated into strong push factors.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

foreign-born population chart

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

That unique context in the 1980s has largely shaped the popular understanding of the “immigration issue” in U.S. domestic politics, but something has changed in Mexico that will soon have profound impacts. McIntosh and Hanson write:

“The Mexican migration wave to the United States has now crested. Fertility rates in Mexico, at 2.3 births per woman of childbearing age, are only modestly above those in the United States, at 1.9 … Labor-supply growth in the two countries is projected to be roughly the same in coming decades. Although living standards in Mexico remain well below US levels, Mexico has tamed the macroeconomic volatility it experienced during the 1980s and 1990s. Net US immigration from Mexico plunged after the onset of the Great Recession in 2007 and has been slightly negative every year since … Absent a significant new economic or political crisis in Mexico, or unexpectedly robust US economic growth, it is unlikely that Mexico-to-US migration rates will again reach the levels witnessed between the early 1980s and the mid-2000s.”

In other words, unless the U.S. scuttles Mexico’s recent economic growth, demand for labor there would begin to exert a much stronger “pull” on Mexican workers. Indeed, the most effective thing the U.S. could do to dampen the flow of immigration would be to invest in Mexico’s economic health.

Few cities are as affected by Mexico’s economic health as San Diego. With strong manufacturing and innovation in clusters like audio/video equipment and medical devices, which span both sides of the border, a hit to one side of the CaliBaja megaregion will cause turbulence everywhere. For example, numerous firms have research operations based in San Diego, with manufacturing just across the border in Tijuana. “Tariffs” and “border taxes” may seem like abstract buzzwords in a D.C. debate, but these could have profound and immediate effects to many industries in San Diego.

Nonetheless, it seems very likely that the Trump administration is going to spend a lot of taxpayer money in an attempt to remove much of the Mexican immigrant population from the U.S.

In their research, McIntosh and Hanson also consider a country that has kept immigrants out: Japan. As an island nation, with policies that make it very difficult to immigrate, Japan provides a glimpse into a possible economic future for the U.S. In December, the Japanese government hosted a group of UCSD students to highlight economic ties between the two countries, showing off numerous state-of-the-art, highly automated car part factories with the occasional human worker sprinkled in.

But Japan is harbinger for the developed world, with an age distribution that skews heavily upward, and a birth rate so low that total population peaked in 2010 and has been shrinking ever since. Japanese officials recognize the need to fill the fast-increasing labor vacuum, but increasingly their options are limited to robots or immigration.

There will soon be much less pressure “pushing” the labor force out of Mexico, which means the U.S. might be about to have a shiny, new and very cost-ineffective wall. These predictions are predicated on a major assumption, however: that the U.S. not torpedo Mexico’s economy. The U.S. has already withdrawn from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and with the North America Free Trade Agreement in its sights, this could be a faulty assumption. Signed in 1994, trade with the U.S. alone under NAFTA makes up over 81 percent of Mexico’s exports, and because Mexico has suffered due to exposure to Chinese manufacturing, TPP was expected to marginally help improve its competitiveness.

Ironically, a protectionist policy agenda that increases barriers to trade to ostensibly support American workers could simply pile on the push factors for potential immigrants in Mexico.

Kyle D. Navis is a graduate student of international affairs at UC San Diego. Before coming to San Diego, he worked for an aid/development nongovernmental organization in Bolivia and was a Teach For America corps member in Philadelphia.

    This article relates to: Border, Border Crossing, Immigration, Must Reads, News

    Written by Kyle D. Navis

    bgetzel subscriber

    Isn't a congressional appropriation required before the wall can proceed to be built? Where are the billions of dollars needed to build the wall coming from? Trump wants to cut taxes as well. How do you do that and spend more money at the same time without increasing the deficit? Isn't the congressional majority the same guys that wanted to lower the deficit in prior years?

    davidedickjr subscriber

    Who chose to use Census data from 25 years ago? Useful for a report on immigration - written in the early 90's. 

    Jorge Serrano
    Jorge Serrano

    Idi Amin Don-Don has conned the voters with his promises of a beautiful wall. Operation Gatekeeper and the Bush Family Wehrmacht have already built wherever a barrier can be built: all that's left is inaccessible mountains, sovereign Tohono O'odam land, and the dead center of the Rio Grande. But, hey, at least he didn't sell you another Brooklyn Bridge!

    This article opens with a photograph of the Operation Gatekeeper fence, built by the Clinton administration out of portable landing strip left over from the Vietnam War. It looks quaint, almost folkloric, but behind the photographer is a second and more menacing fence built by Dubya's administration. Together these two fences constitute a double-rook defense and its no-man's land is filled with infrared, acoustic, and motion sensors as well as high-definition PTZ closed-circuit cameras and other gadgets mere citizens are not allowed to know about. The barrier is so forbidding that the few people who attempt an undocumented crossing overland are obliged to cross where the terrain is too rugged for construction. Death from exposure is commonplace. Consequently, most undocumented crossings these days are made with the complicity of DHS agents through the official ports of entry.

    Don Mitchell of Syracuse University put the issue into historical perspective in a presentation he made at ASU in 2013, "Operation Wetback to Operation Gatekeeper: Borders, the Border Patrol, and the Making of the California Landscape". It is worth watching: 

    It's also worth pointing out that Mexican immigration has already plummeted, if I dare repeat such a melodramatic word. The Census Bureau graph in this article ends inexplicably at 1990 while the flow began reversing at the beginning of this century. In fact, one day last year, the INM (Mexican immigration) rounded up fifteen hundred wetback gringos and kindly, gently returned them to the land of their birth. Not all of them were murderers and rapists but about five hundred of them had outstanding warrants.

    rhylton subscriber

    I could say that  "could" is the verb-of- choice of the coward; in fact, I do. I would have preferred to read that 

    Immigration From Mexico Could Soon Plummet or It Could Not. The words "may" and "might" are second and third.

    craig Nelson
    craig Nelson

    Ah economists, their favorite saying "other things being equal" they can confidently make predictions. Too bad nothing stays the same so they are often wrong. With the case of illegal immigration people are drawn from outside of MX to the MX border because they have been told they can cross into the US there fairly easily. Securing the Southern border (including a wall) needs to happen in order for people to top flooding the MX border from other countries. All things being equal. 

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    Unfortunately, he listens to the alt-right who see a "boogey person" on every corner. He and they will not be satisfied until they cannot find a babysitter, a fast food restaurant person, a construction worker, a crop picker, a senior care person, a hotel worker, a yard worker, a trash collector/recycler, a janitor, and a plethora of other "odd" jobs, not on prevailing wages. And, how many out-of-work coal miners, factory workers will fill those jobs in the nooks and crannies of America?

    He and the alt-right have returned to "responsible" positions in government by establishing an ill founded paranoia by scaring poorly informed Americans. 

      Trump and Bannon are not for good change. No. They get their support from the same type of a very small group of ultra right wing conservatives, like the same ones that elevated dictators like Pinochet to power.

        Rational, thoughtful policy changes over time are not about this group of Trumpites.

    Kenneth Gardner
    Kenneth Gardner

    @John H Borja There will be plenty of American citizens to fill the jobs you mention. The prevailing wage will be paid, because more money will stay in the states as the economy grows from more citizens getting paid. It is amazing to me that liberals such as yourself will use the argument openly that non-citizens fill these jobs. That is a fact, like the sky is blue. But being a fact does not make it right. Two wrongs do not make a right. America does not owe anyone a living. Human rights are a luxury, not a necessity.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    In your chart is a category "Other Central America", which has grown rapidly in recent decades.  My understanding is that the majority of illegals in the last five years or so fall into that category, so factors such as Mexican/American trade seem to this reader to be diminishing as causative.  

    Gerald Sodomka
    Gerald Sodomka

    Demographics in Mexico are only one factor pushing illegal immigration into the United States.  Economic disparities are another.  There is also the OTM problem (other than Mexican).  The  recent increase in Cubans, Haitians, and small numbers of people from Africa and the Middle East suggest pressure will remain at the border.  Economic and political turmoil in the world create large movements of people that then create a reaction against it.  This was seen in Europe in 2016.

    There is a strong pull for cheap labor and cheap drugs in the US.  In Mexico there is a strong pull for arms and dollars.  It's a complicated situation, and the factors influencing the situation are subject to change.  Even a peso slide or devaluation can be a factor.  Past experience suggests that the border needs to be made less porous.

    philip piel
    philip piel subscriber

    I wonder if purveyors of methamphetamine and cocaine, sex traffickers and terrorist will self deport or choose not to take the path of least resistance when entering our country illegally because the economy has improved in their country of origin?