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January 2012, Volume 19, Number 1

Mexico: Less Emigration

Net Mexico-US migration peaked at over 750,000 in 2000 and practically stopped in 2010, when an estimated 150,000 Mexicans moved to the US and about the same number returned to Mexico. Over half of Mexican-born US residents are unauthorized, and half have been in the US 15 years or more.

Many observers say that the era of mass Mexico-US migration may be coming to an end as a lack of US jobs for low-skilled Mexicans, improving conditions in rural Mexico, and the greater danger and expense of crossing the border illegally keep more Mexicans at home. There is disagreement over which of these factors is most important in explaining decreased Mexico-US migration, and whether a resumption of US job growth will be accompanied by more migration.

Numbers. There were 12.4 million Mexican-born US residents in 2010, down from a peak 12.5 million in 2007, according to Pew Hispanic Center estimates. About 10 percent of persons born in Mexico have moved to the US, and Mexican-born US residents are 31 percent of the 40 million foreign-born US residents.

Just over half of the Mexican-born US residents, 52 percent, were illegally in the US in 2010. The proportion was greater in 2007, when over 56 percent of Mexican-born US residents were illegally present.

The peak year of Mexico-US migration was 2000, when a net 760,000 Mexicans moved to the US, followed by 670,000 in 2004 and 570,000 in 1995.

Many households that include unauthorized Mexican adults have US-born children. There are four times as many US-born children with an unauthorized Mexican parent as there are unauthorized Mexican children with an unauthorized Mexican parent.

Returns. Mexico's 2010 Census reported that almost a million Mexican residents of the US returned to Mexico between 2005 and 2010, with returns concentrated in the 2008-10 period. Some returning Mexicans are taking their US-born children with them, meaning that some young US citizens are moving to Mexico.

Mexican parents sometimes have trouble obtaining services for their US-born children in Mexico because local officials do not consider them Mexican. With more public services now available in Mexico, some local officials are discriminating against Mexicans who had migrated to the US, denying them or their children services or charging special fees. Especially in some very poor indigenous areas, officials charge for "temporary" birth certificates that have to be renewed as a way to extract fees.

Some Mexicans who had moved to the US from western and southern Mexico are returning not to their places of origin but to the northern Mexican states that benefited more from NAFTA.

The New York Times reported January 6, 2012 that internal rural-urban migration was replacing Mexico-US migration as the dominant movement, with rural Mexicans moving to M‚rida, Oaxaca City and Quer‚taro. The town of Santa Mar¡a Atzompa near Oaxaca City jumped from less than 6,000 in 1990 to over 27,000 in 2011 as migrants who might earlier have gone to the US chose instead to move near the major city in Oaxaca.

Explaining their choices, rural-urban migrants cite improved infrastructure in cities and towns, including water and electricity, as well as better secondary schools for their children. Some local residents resent the influx, arguing that the influx of men without families increases crime. Male construction workers say that their daily wages have fallen from $14 in 2006 to $11 in 2012.

About 58 percent of employed Mexicans in 2010 were wage and salary workers, three percent were employers, and almost 40 percent were employed in the informal sector, often in family businesses. Mexicans who worked in the US and returned to Mexico were more likely to be employed in the informal sector than all Mexicans.

Mexican economists estimate that a one percent increase in Mexican GDP is associated with a 0.4 percent increase in Mexican employment, so that 2.5 percent GDP growth is associated with one percent employment growth. Mexican employment was 44 million in 2010. In order to expand employment by 11 million or 25 percent by 2020 as projected, Mexican GDP would have to increase by 62 percent in a decade, over five percent a year.

Official Mexican data categorize workers by what they earn relative to the minimum wage, which varies by region but was 57 pesos ($5) a day in Mexico City and other Zone A areas. A third of employed Mexicans earn less than twice the minimum wage, 40 percent earn between twice and five times the minimum wage, and 10 percent earn five to 10 times the minimum wage (the rest had no wage specified).

Policy. The policy implications of the slowdown in Mexico-US migration are unclear. The reasons for fewer new entries and more returns include the US recession and higher unemployment, especially in sectors such as housing construction that employed large numbers of low-skilled Mexican workers, stepped-up federal and state enforcement efforts that include I-9 audits, mandatory employer participation in E-Verify, and state laws making illegal presence a felony.

There are also more deportations of unauthorized foreigners; almost three-fourths of the 387,000 foreigners formally removed or deported in FY10 were Mexicans.

The New York Times on July 6, 2011 emphasized changes in Mexico, including more formal sector jobs offering higher wages and more social services for poor families in rural Mexico. More Mexicans entering the US have visas, including immigration visas to join relatives who sponsor them or guest worker visas, usually H-2A and H-2B visas.

Mexican government data suggest that only 20 percent of Mexicans entering the US had legal documents permitting entry in 2007, compared with almost 40 percent in 2009. The US issued 1.1 million visas to Mexicans in 2010, in part because of a policy change that reduced the rejection rate for tourist visa applications from 32 percent in 2008 to 11 percent in 2010.

Some observers point to the slowdown in Mexico-US migration and urge legalization. Others point to significant returns and urge more attrition through enforcement.

Remittances. Mexico receives $2 billion a month in remittances, so that remittances in 2011 are expected to top the $24 billion received in 2007. By comparison, an estimated $20 billion to $40 million in drug money flows from the US to Mexico each year. The Mexican peso declined about 20 percent between July and November 2011, bolstering exports and adding to inflationary pressures in Mexico.

Damien Cave, "Migrants' New Paths Reshaping Latin America," New York Times, January 6, 2012.