Andres Oppenheimer

Immigration: Will China be the new Mexico?

Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton will have a formidable weapon to disarm Republican anti-immigration candidates who want to virtually seal the U.S. southern border — there are already more Chinese than Mexican immigrants who enter the United States every year.

New figures from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey reveal that 147,000 Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States from China in 2013, versus 125,000 from Mexico. The annual survey includes both documented and undocumented migrants, and it was the first time that it showed a greater flow of immigrants from China than from Mexico.

The number of undocumented Mexicans moving to the United States has plummeted in recent years, dropping from around 400,000 per year about a decade ago to their current numbers, demographers say.

The number of Mexican immigrants reached its lowest level in more than a half-century in 2011. In addition to the 2008 U.S. financial crisis, Mexican immigration dropped because of lower birth-rates in Mexico — fertility rates there have gone down from about 5.5 children per woman in the 1970s to about 2.5 children today — and due to President Barack Obama’s increased border security measures, including record numbers of deportations of undocumented immigrants.

Meantime, the number of Chinese immigrants is booming, from about 75,000 a year a decade ago to twice as many today. Experts say it’s both because China has become wealthier, which is allowing many Chinese to send their children to school in the United States, and because China’s recent economic downturn is driving many Chinese “internal migrants” to seek a new life abroad.

About 250 million people have moved from China’s rural areas to big cities in recent decades, and live as undocumented internal migrants in Beijing and other major cities. Growing unemployment in China’s construction industry is driving many of these migrants to seek jobs abroad, experts say.

Dudley L. Poston, Jr., an expert in Chinese and Mexican migration patterns with Texas A&M University, says the new trends are likely to continue. He does not believe that the U.S. economic recovery will result in a big increase in Mexican immigration, while new arrivals from China and India are likely to increase to a combined 400,000 people a year.

While there are an estimated 6 million Mexican undocumented migrants and only about 300,000 undocumented Chinese living in the United States, most of the new arrivals are not people who cross the border illegally, but people who come as tourists or students and overstay their visas, he said.

“Sealing the southern border is not going to keep immigrants out of the country,” Poston told me. “The debate about sealing the border is foolish, because it’s the visa over-stayers who make up the biggest percentage of undocumented migrants.”

The new U.S. Census data came as Clinton positioned herself in a speech last week as the most pro-immigration candidate. Clinton moved farther to the left than Obama on immigration by supporting a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States.

On the other hand, Republicans — with the possible exception of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — are hardening their immigration stands.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who had earlier supported legal status to undocumented immigrants or their children, have recently backed away from their previous positions. Virtually all Republican hopefuls oppose Obama’s 2014 executive order granting temporary work permits to undocumented immigrants, which Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has described as an “illegal executive amnesty.”

Republican immigration hard-liners say that the U.S. Census data on Chinese and Mexican immigrants should be taken with a grain of salt.

The survey asked foreign-born people in the United States where they lived a year earlier, and undocumented residents are less likely to answer that question, they say. Also, the percentage of Mexicans who arrive in the United States without immigration documents is much higher than that of Chinese, they say.

My opinion: Granted, the new Census figures may undercount undocumented people. But the trend is clear: immigration from Mexico is way down, while immigration from Asia is way up.

So when Republican immigration hard-liners pound the table demanding to “secure the border” to stop an alleged invasion of illegal aliens from the south, there are new reasons to wonder whether their primary goal is to fix the broken U.S. immigration system, or to keep out Mexicans. Hillary will suggest it’s the latter — and she will be right.

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