Fewer Mexicans Head to U.S. as Home Exerts More Pull

With the U.S. Senate locked in debate over an immigration overhaul, a crucial question is whether new laws and a recovering U.S. economy will draw a new flood of Mexican immigrants.

Miriam López’s case could help provide an answer.

After five years in the U.S., and with acceptance letters to several American universities in hand, she moved back to her home in Mexico.

Ms. López had crossed the border to the U.S. illegally when she was about 12 years old, following her father. Ms. López became salutatorian at her American high school. But she said sherealized she wouldn’t be able to attend college without legal documents.

Now 20 years old, she’s an international-relations student at Tecnológico de Monterrey in the southeastern state of Puebla and sees more reasons to build her life in Mexico. “Most of the people that I know have been to the states and migrated and moved back,” Ms. López said. “They already know what it’s like.…It’s not like you’re going to go there and be happy forever. You have to work hard.”

After four decades of persistent migration from Mexico to the U.S., the net immigration flow has stopped in recent years.

Critics warn that a bill now before the Senate, which proposes opening a pathway to citizenship for many who now are in the country illegally, would again make the U.S. a magnet for more illegal immigrants.

But experts from both sides of the border are skeptical that the U.S. will see an upsurge in immigration from Mexico, citing a strengthening Mexican economy, increases in border security that have made crossing costlier and more dangerous, and demographic changes in Mexico, such as a falling fertility rate.

More than 700,000 Mexicans came to the U.S. in 2000 alone, a peak in immigration flows. But immigration slowed to a trickle between 2005 and 2010, according to the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center, so much so that the number of Mexicans returning to their home country offset the number coming to the U.S.

“Whether they’ll go up from here or not is dependent on a lot of factors,” said Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer for the Pew Hispanic Center, among them the health of the U.S. economy and a potential immigration overhaul. But “we won’t see flows as big as we saw around 2000, ever.”

New opportunities are coming to Mexico. Luxury-car maker Audi laid the foundation stone in May for a factory in Puebla—the German company’s first in North America—to manufacture the Audi Q5 SUV. The project is set to create 3,800 jobs at the plant and some 16,000 jobs at suppliers and other businesses.

The Mexican economy grew at a 4% annual rate in 2012, compared with 2.2% in the U.S. In the state of Puebla, the source of hundreds of thousands of immigrants to the U.S., the economy grew at a 6.6% rate in the fourth quarter of 2012, according to government statistics. The unemployment rate in Puebla was just above 4% in April.

“The incentive to go to the states is lower, because they’re going to have a very nice job with all the fringe benefits,” Miguel Hakim Simón, head of Puebla’s office of international affairs and migrant support, said in an interview in the newly constructed Puebla government offices in Atlixco. “At least from the Puebla standpoint, we don’t think we’re going to send more people to the states.”

At this point, the locals, Poblanos, would be better off learning German than English, he joked.

Some Mexicans will still be drawn to the U.S., particularly as its economy improves. In Puebla, 61% of residents lived in poverty in 2010, says a study by the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy, a Mexican group. “It is a state of contrasts,” Mr. Hakim said.

But fewer Mexicans say they are interested in making the journey. Some 61% of Mexicans surveyed in a separate Pew poll said they wouldn’t come to the U.S. even if they had the means and the opportunity. However, some 35% said they would.

“If they want to go because it’s a family thing or whatever, they can go. But in the past, I would say it was they didn’t have any option,” Mr. Hakim said. “Before, they had to go.”

Demographic changes show there will also be fewer young Mexicans to make the trek. In the 1960s, Mexican woman gave birth to an average of seven children over the course of their lifetimes. By 2011, that average had fallen to about two.

With the U.S. labor force aging, the supply of young labor from the south could have implications for America’s economic future too.

“There’s always a surplus of labor in the world, at least for the foreseeable future,” said Douglas Massey, a Princeton University sociology and public affairs professor. But “I think there might be a time in 10 years where American employers, and Americans in general, might think about the good old days when Mexican labor was cheap and plentiful.”

The school year had mostly wrapped at Tecnológico de Monterrey and students such as Yuritzi López, a 25-year-old international-relations student, were just waiting to take their finals. Mrs. López, who has no relation to Miriam López, juggles school with running her own publicity business. She takes the photos; her husband edits them. It is how they support their two daughters.

Mrs. López spent part of her childhood in Japan, and some of her family now lives in China. She doesn’t expect to stay in Mexico all her life. But the U.S. isn’t part of her plan, either. For now, things are going well in Puebla. “As a mother, I can say it’s pretty good,” Mrs. López said. “I can start my own business and it’s going to work. I don’t have the necessity of crossing the border.”

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Write to Sara Murray at sara.murray@wsj.com

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