Mexico’s Improving Education and Declining Emigration

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In the upcoming election season, the American public must disregard the inevitable sensationalist claim that Mexican immigrants continue to threaten domestic job security. In recent months, the U.S. has seen the tidal wave of both legal and illegal immigration from Mexico reduced to a mere ripple. While there are several push and pull factors behind this drastic reduction, including high U.S. unemployment, enhanced border enforcement and falling Mexican birth rates, chief among them are real improvements in Mexico’s notoriously deficient education system. A 2006 study by Harvard University researchers reported that higher levels of education generate “better employment prospects, higher salaries, and a greater ability to save and invest.”  As Mexico expands enrollment in schools and universities, its citizens are less likely to cross the border in search of employment. A more highly educated population, in turn, permits tangible benefits for the public sector, including greater tax revenue, improved technology, and stronger government. .

In 1982, Mexico’s financial crisis prompted massive cuts in education, which fueled an exodus across the northern border. Indeed, U.S.Border Patrol statistics reveal a 32 percent jump in apprehensions from 1982 to 1983. As Mexico’s economy continued to struggle, various administrations anticipated an increased need for education reform. A plethora of attempts throughout the 1990s to revise the education system included a 1993 amendment to the Federal Law of Education that would assign individual Mexican states theresponsibility to provide schooling for Mexican citizens.

The multi-pronged stabs at educational reform proved generally successful, as 90 percent of children were enrolled in primary school (grades 1-6) by the year 2000. Additionally, the number of students at the secondary level of Mexico’s education system (grades 7-9) has increased by 2 million since 1994. Yet, education in the world’s 11th most populous country is ever expanding. Between 1990 and 2009, Mexico’s adult literacy rate increased by almost 6 percentage points; adult female and youth literacy rates increased by 7 and 3.1 percentage points, respectively, over the same period.

 While U.S. politicians and immigration experts prefer to link the reduction in both legal and undocumented immigration with beefed up border security and restrictions on the rights of illegal aliens, a more genuine determinant is more likely to be Mexico’s improved education and literacy rates. In Jalisco, one of the top three Mexican states for emigration over the last century, preparatory schools for students aged 15 to 18 doubled between 2000 and 2009 from 360 to 724. Likewise, professionals in the state with a bachelor’s degree or higher rose from 405,415 in 2000 to 821,983 a decade later. The poverty of southern states like Chiapas and Oaxaca has not deterred a similar doubling in the number of professional degree holders since 2000.

Meanwhile, since the beginning of the 21st century, illegal immigration has been in steady decline; the number of U.S. Border Patrol apprehensionspeaked in 2000. After a decade of tumbling immigration rates, the Mexican Migration Project, a Princeton University based research group, reported that the desire to emigrate to the U.S. declined to its lowest level since at least the 1950s. According to Douglas S. Massey, co-director of the Mexican Migration Project, “For the first time in 60 yearsthe net traffic has gone to zero.” This surprising statistic accompanies a trend of falling general migration that began in 2008 following 2006 legislation that made the acquisition of a visa easier for the average Mexican citizen.

The relationship between increased education in Mexico and decreasing immigration to the U.S. introduces new options for future U.S. immigration policy. If the trend continues, future surges in immigration to the U.S. from Mexico could be curtailed through more manageable social policy and result in far less hostility than would develop from a physical partition of the border. The U.S. would no longer waste time and money on a formidable wall stretching 2000 miles along the U.S.-Mexico border. These resources could be better spent investing in improving education, thus decreasing the number of uneducated Mexican youth, which was estimated at about 1 million in 2010. Furthermore, as unschooled children are exceptionally vulnerable to recruitment by drug-trafficking cartels, a reduction in their numbers could deny illicit organizations a large portion of their recruitment base and weaken their power in society.

A variety of factors such as economic uncertainty in the U.S., increasing Drug War violence along the border, and a surge in discriminatory immigration policies enacted in states like Alabama and Arizona are curbing the flow of foreigners. However, Mexico’s expanding education system is largely responsible for the decline in its emigration rates. If education continues to flourish, the U.S. may continue to see the tide of immigration reverse its course.

Written by COHA Research Associate Ben Lamport

This is the second part in a series that will cover immigration throughout the hemisphere from a variety of different perspectives.