A study released earlier this year by the Pew Hispanic Center caught my attention, and its findings might require observers of U.S.-Mexico relations to recalibrate their thinking.

According to Pew data, immigration – legal and illegal – from Mexico to the United States has flat-lined. The report’s writers found that in the five-year period of 2005-2010, 1.4 million Mexicans immigrated to the U.S., but that’s the same number of Mexicans who immigrated from the U.S. to Mexico during that same period.

So far, the [Mexican] president-elect has made all the right moves, surrounding himself with a topnotch transition team and sending a message to multinational businesses – especially those in the U.S. – that Mexico is open for business.

- Nelson Balido

Certainly the weak U.S. economy has played a role in the declining immigration numbers. After all, a struggling U.S. jobs picture combined with increased workplace enforcement measures, such as E-Verify, makes this country less attractive to the would-be immigrant worker.

But what cannot be discounted is the commitment and professionalism of the men and women of the U.S. Border Patrol, whose enforcement strategies have resulted in a dramatic drop in apprehensions from a fiscal year 2000 high of 1.6 million to an FY 2011 low of 327,000. Leaders like David Aguilar, the most senior official at Customs and Border Protection and a former Border Patrol national chief, have made border security a top priority, and the proof is in the numbers. Crossing illegally into the U.S. from Mexico is just tougher than it has ever been.

The undocumented immigrant of today is now likely to be what is known in enforcement circles as an “OTMs”, or “other than Mexicans.” My conversations with agents in the field in South Texas confirm that they’re increasingly seeing immigrants from places like Central America, South America, India and even the Middle East who have used Mexico as jumping-off point into the U.S.

This is where Mexico’s new presidential administration comes in.

Former State of Mexico Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto will be sworn in as Mexico’s new president on December 1. So far, the president-elect has made all the right moves, surrounding himself with a topnotch transition team and sending a message to multinational businesses – especially those in the U.S. – that Mexico is open for business, as he even remains open to the idea of allowing increased foreign investment in such Mexican points of pride as its oil industry.

I’ve been able to get to know some of the top transition leaders of Team Peña Nieto, all of who will have significant positions in the new administration, through my weekly contacts with them, and I’ve been struck by their desire to increase Mexico competitiveness in the world economy, attract investment and grow jobs. Mexico’s economy has, for the most part, weathered the worst of the economic downturn, meaning that more young Mexicans can reasonably seek and find work in their patria rather than heading north.

But with more Mexicans becoming part of the country’s growing middle class, the new president cannot forget that his country still needs to help quell northward illegal migration into the United States, even if it’s not Mexicans making that trek. When he takes office, President Peña Nieto must deploy a strategy to gain operational control of his border with Guatemala.

Assistant Secretary of International Affairs and former commissioner of CBP, Alan Bersin, acknowledged that Central America is the emerging new source of illegal immigration when he said in a speech last month, “That is why we must work with Mexico to restore the rule of law to the Mexican-Guatemalan border over the next ten years.”

This shift in migration patterns is occurring as many commentators are saying that 2013 could be the year for significant movement on U.S. immigration reform, after previous efforts fell apart due to intractable political differences.

Americans should be proud that our country, despite crawling out of this Great Recession, is still a country that people from all over the world want to build a life in. And the American business community is very aware that an economically healthy Mexico is good for the U.S., as it means a more competitive North America in the face of an Asia on the rise.

But I would counsel President-Elect Peña Nieto that the American goodwill that he will experience could quickly sour if U.S. public opinion begins to view him as an able, business-savvy leader, but as someone who doesn’t understand his neighbor to the north and the pitched battles that have been waged over immigration.

Nelson Balido is the managing principal at Balido and Associates, chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.  Follow him on Twitter: @nelsonbalido

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