At the time Mitt Romney made a reference to “self-deportation” through tougher employer and immigration enforcement in a January debate, he got roundly criticized for believing that illegals would choose to leave the US.  Today, National Journal says Romney has been vindicated by a new study of immigration from and to Mexico.  For the first time in decades, more people returned to Mexico than arrived from there, and the trend may end up being permanent:

The largest wave of immigration in history from a single country to the United States has come to a standstill. After four decades that brought 12 million current immigrants—more than half of whom came illegally—the net migration flow from Mexico to the United States has stopped—and may have reversed, according to a new analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center of multiple government data sets from both countries.

The standstill appears to be the result of many factors, including the weakened U.S. job and housing construction markets, heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations, the growing dangers associated with illegal border crossings, the long-term decline in Mexico’s birth rates and changing economic conditions in Mexico. …

Among the report’s key findings:

  • In the five-year period from 2005 to 2010, about 1.4 million Mexicans immigrated to the United States and about 1.4 million Mexican immigrants and their U.S.-born children moved from the United States to Mexico.
  • In the five-year period a decade earlier (1995 to 2000), about 3 million Mexicans had immigrated to the U.S. and fewer than 700,000 Mexicans and their U.S. born-children had moved from the U.S. to Mexico.
  • This sharp downward trend in net migration has led to the first significant decrease in at least two decades in the number of unauthorized Mexican immigrants living in the U.S.—to 6.1 million in 2011, down from a peak of nearly 7 million in 2007. Over the same period the number of authorized Mexican immigrants rose modestly, from 5.6 million in 2007 to 5.8 million in 2011.

National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar writes that this may upend the conventional wisdom about the impact of the Hispanic vote:

For Democrats, the expected long-term explosion of Latino voters may not end up materializing. While there was a significant spike in the Hispanic population at the first half of the last decade, the economic recession and tighter immigration crackdowns have slowed that to a trickle. It’s not a given that Hispanic voters will make a larger share of the electorate than in 2008, as many in the Obama campaign had presumed (and depended upon). Already Democrats are facing challenges registering Hispanic voters in battleground states, like Arizona.

For Republicans, the illegal immigration litmus test, forcing conservative candidates to toe a hardline on the issue, could very well recede in the near future. A January Pew poll showed the number of Republicans considering illegal immigration as a top issue has plummeted, dropping from 69 percent in 2007 to 48 percent at the beginning of this year. The future Republican positioning on immigration could very well be closer to the policy views of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio than that of hardliners like Iowa Rep. Steve King.

The long-term political implications are equally significant. Democrats have counted Hispanics as a pivotal part of their coalition, but there’s no guarantee that as first-generation immigrants assimilate, they will remain reliable partisan voters. Indeed, a complementary Pew Hispanic Center study, released last month, showed immigrants becoming more Republican the longer they’ve been in this country — a similar narrative to other first-generation ethnic groups.

Border security will remain important for other reasons.  Even without a wave of well-intentioned but illegal immigration, the problems of global terrorism still require the US to secure both of its borders.  Both Rubio and King agree on the need for border security, and the GOP has been fairly united on insisting that this issue get addressed before deciding what to do with those who are still in the country illegally, especially the long-term residents.  When the first task has been accomplished, the remaining issues can be resolved with more deliberation and better perspective.

The other issue facing Democrats as Hispanics assimilate is the Obama administration’s attack on the Catholic Church.  Many of the same voters they believe will flock to their party are devout Catholics, who are now hearing weekly from the bishops about the White House attack on the exercise of their religion.  Memories of the Cristeros might not be too far from their minds, but even if that’s not the case, they’re not likely to be too sympathetic to Democrats who insist on imposing their values on the church through force of law.  The Obama administration picked a very odd time for this fight with the heretofore sympathetic US Conference of Catholic Bishops, especially if they’re that concerned with wooing the Hispanic vote.