Last fall, Washington Growers League executive director Mike Gempler got talking to a couple of Mexican brothers working on a farm in Naches, west of Yakima. Like many immigrants, the brothers were ambitious, Gempler says. They were attending community college. But they had nevertheless decided to go back to their fishing village in Mexico.
Illegally here, they had decided that "living underground just wasn't worth it anymore," even if returning to Mexico meant an income cut, Gempler recalls.
He's hearing similar stories about other farm workers who, Gempler says, "announced to their employers that they were going back to Mexico and staying there."
"That's not something we heard five years ago," he observes. But it is something that fits a national pattern. This week, the Pew Hispanic Center released a study proclaiming that "the largest wave of immigration in history from a single county has come to a standstill." Analyzing Census data and other sources from both the U.S. and Mexico, the center found that for the first time the Mexican-born population in this country had declined.
And it wasn't just that fewer Mexicans were coming to this country. That had been evident for some time as the U.S. economy soured, the Mexican economy improved and immigration enforcement in this country toughened at both the federal and local level (See the the Arizona law now before the U.S. Supreme Court).
No, what Pew senior demographer Jeffrey Passel, in an interview with SW, calls "the real surprise" was something else. Not only were fewer Mexicans coming, but more Mexicans were leaving the U.S. to return home. Says the report: "The number of Mexicans and their children who moved from the U.S. to Mexico between 2005 and 2010 rose to 1.4 million, roughly double the number who had done so in the five-year period a decade before."
State figures for this phenomenon are hard to come by. The Office of Financial Management, which tracks population, doesn't record incoming or outgoing migration by nationality. However, OFM demographer Yi Zhao says that there has been "a huge drop" in the overall net migration into the state, from both other states and other countries. Between 2005 and 2006, that figure was 82,500. Four years later, according to the most recent data, it has dropped almost eight-fold to 12,000.
Gempler--despite voicing concern for years about a labor shortage in the state's farm country and opposing border enforcement policies that keep potential workers away -- doesn't sound panicked. He says the outflow of Mexican workers is still balanced by new immigrants, albeit less of them then there used to be.
Then again, this year's agricultural season is just beginning. "We hit June 1 and everyone will be thinning fruit. The cherry harvest will be starting. That's the first test."