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Since 2017, more than one million Central Americans have made their way to the U.S. southwestern border, triggering a disjointed but brutal crackdown by the administration of President Donald Trump. Although the combination of tighter border controls and the coronavirus has reduced these flows, they will resume when the Covid-19 lockdowns lift.

Only this time, Mexicans are likely to join the exodus. The resulting tensions could destabilize one of the world’s most tightly woven bilateral relationships, jeopardizing cooperation on everything from counternarcotics to water rights and the prosperity that closer ties have underpinned on both sides of the border.Mexican migration to the U.S. peaked at the turn of the last century.

At the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans moved north every year, many evading border sentries along the way. They fanned out across the nation, drawn to enclaves in California, Texas, Illinois, and Arizona, but also to newer locations: Colorado, Florida, Georgia and Idaho. And many switched from seasonal work in the fields to more permanent year-round jobs in childcare, landscaping, hotels and car services.

By the mid-2000s, the exodus slowed. For the past 15 years, more Mexicans have left the U.S. than come each year. This shift reflects economic progress at home, not least an end to the financial booms and busts of the 1980s and 1990s. Beefed-up enforcement at the U.S. border has also discouraged circular migration, with workers now rarely returning home for a few months between planting seasons.

Better schooling also helped. With the number of years of education nearly doubling since 1990, the average Mexican 16-year-old is in class, not the workforce. So have changing demographics: Starting in the 1980s Mexican families have had fewer kids, now averaging just over two per household. Compared with the 1990s, fewer Mexicans are turning 18 every year and searching for work either at home or in the U.S.

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