How does Mexico provide for its poor

Part of the reason, of course, is the global economic downturn, which eliminated many of the low-wage job opportunities that Mexican immigrants might have come to the U.S. to seek.

But in addition to the U.S. becoming a less attractive destination, part of the explanation for the drop is that prospects in Mexico are actually looking up.

Even though Mexico is clearly still struggling, there are signs that the country is gradually improving. Crime is down in border cities like Ciudad Juarez. Mexico's fertility rate is falling and its population is aging, meaning there are fewer young workers scrambling for jobs (half of all Mexican immigrants are under age 33). For the first time in decades, Mexico has a fledgling middle class. Its GDP growth rivals Brazil's, and economically, some economists think the country is doing even better than the United States. According to the OECD, Mexicans are about as satisfied with their lives as people in Iceland or Ireland are.

For just one example, we can look at the mean "life today" score, in which Gallup asks respondents to think of a ladder with 10 steps -- with each next step representing an improved overall situation -- and rank their lives as being on one of the ten steps. According to that score, Mexico's mean "life today" score is 7.1. In the U.S., it's 7.0. By comparison, in 2007, that number was 7.2 in the U.S. and just 6.6 in Mexico. Here's the latest view from Gallup, with the two countries nearly identical in their average life rank:

And here it is from 2006/2007, with a stark difference between the U.S. and Mexico:

Mexicans are also more hopeful about the future these days. On average, Mexicans said their lives in five years would be a 7.6, using the ladder from the past example, and Americans said they would be a 7.9. In 2007, that difference was much larger -- 7.4 and 8.2, respectively. (At times, Mexicans have had even sunnier outlooks than Americans. In 2008, 80 percent of them said "yes" to the existential-sounding question, "Would you like more days like yesterday?" compared with 78 percent of people in the U.S.)

Our neighbors south of the border are also more and more interested in staying put. In 2007, 21 percent of Mexicans said they wanted to move permanently to another country. Today, that number is 11 percent, the same as for U.S. residents:

Of course, Mexico still faces a plethora of societal and economic challenges. Almost half its citizens live in poverty -- 11.7 million of them in extreme poverty, meaning they make the equivalent of less than $83 a month. Drug cartels sill run rampant. Banks there don't lend enough, which slows business growth. Prices are still too high because a handful of oligarchs control the country's largest industries.

Still, it seems like many of the people who would have liked to move to the U.S. have already done so. The New York Times recently reported on one nearly empty Mexican town where few would-be immigrants remain:

Homes await returning families, while dozens of schools have closed because of a lack of students. Here in El Cargadero, a once-thriving farm community of 3,000, only a few hundred people remain, at most.

Many in the anti-amnesty crowd have said the U.S. needs stronger border security before any pathways to citizenship can begin. But the border might actually already be secure enough . There are more border agents now than ever before, but border apprehensions in 2011 were at a 40-year low, at roughly 340,000 per year. (They ticked up by 20,000 last year, but that's still dramatically lower than the pre-recession level of one million or more annually.)