The illegal immigration of Mexicans to the U.S. has “sputtered to a trickle” due to an increase in economic and educational opportunities in Mexico coupled with a surge in border violence. At least, that is what The New York Times reported earlier this year.

Ignoring that the apprehension of 447,500 illegal immigrants along the southwest border in fiscal year 2010 can hardly be called “trickle,” has the economy in Mexico really seen such drastic improvements that economic conditions are pushing fewer and fewer Mexican citizens to head to the U.S.? Likewise, what are the true effects of drug violence along the border and throughout Mexico on illegal immigration to the U.S.?

In June, The Heritage Foundation wrote about the “push-pull effect” and illegal immigration, explaining:

Illegal immigration largely results from the “push-pull effect” caused by slow economies in Latin America and the need for workers in the United States. In order to stem this tide, the United States should implement a market-based temporary-worker pilot program to meet the American demand for workers, giving U.S. businesses access to a reliable, rotating workforce from abroad. Such a program would meet the needs of the American economy and also quell the drive for illegal immigration. Further, fostering free-market economic reforms in Latin America would help to strengthen the economic opportunities of the region and reduce the need for individuals to seek employment abroad in order to support themselves and their families.

On the one side, few would argue that the U.S. “pull” on immigrants has not declined with the recent economic downturn. In fact, most experts seem to believe that the decline in the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S.—an estimated 10.8 million illegal immigrants were believed to be present in the U.S. in January 2010, down from 11.8 million in January 2007—is largely due to self-deportation. As jobs have become scarcer in the United States, some illegal immigrants have chosen to simply turn around and go home, and some may simply be choosing not to come at all.

The bigger question, however, is just how much the “push” effect has declined. As author Georffrey Ramsey explains in, while some in Mexico may have seen a growth in disposable income in recent years, only 32 percent of the country qualifies as middle class, while the number of individuals living below the poverty line has grown to 52 million (nearly half of Mexico’s population of 112 million). Increases in free market reform and economic opportunity in Mexico are still desperately needed.

The question remaining, then, is the effects on illegal immigration of fear of violence spurned by Mexico’s drug war. As we wrote earlier this year:

Violence against illegal border-crossers has become a regular occurrence around land and sea borders over the past decade. Criminal acts committed against illegal immigrants include kidnapping, robbery, extortion, sexual violence, and death at the hands of cartels, smugglers, and even corrupt Mexican government officials.… Despite some success in thwarting these [transnational criminal] organizations, the slow pace of justice and law enforcement reform, as well as rampant corruption, has allowed organized crime to continue to thrive in Mexico. Likewise, as Mexico attempts to clamp down on narcotics operations, these increasingly multifaceted criminal organizations turn to other sources of income, such as human smuggling and sex trafficking.

Rather than belittling the problem of illegal immigration to the United States, Americans should take a more comprehensive and robust strategy for combating human smuggling, violence, and the huge numbers of illegal aliens. Such a strategy should focus on increasing border security and improving legal immigration procedures and public diplomacy and fostering reforms and greater efforts to combat human smuggling in Latin America.