Emigration from Mexico

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Emigration from Mexico is a migratory phenomenon that has been taking place in Mexico since the early 20th century.


Emigration from Mexico began timidly about a century ago, but experienced a significant increase since the 1960s. The emigration phenomenon, in the case of Mexico is diverse and varied through the country. This is due to the economic situation that applies mainly to poorer people, who seek better job opportunities in other countries. More than 11% of Mexico’s native population lives abroad, making it the country with the most emigrants in the world. 98% of all Mexican emigrants reside in the United States, which are more than 12 million (documented and undocumented) migrants. Estimates on the amount of Mexican emigrants of indigenous origin in the U.S. range between 50% and 90% of the entire emigrant population. There are no official numbers on the amount of indigenous Mexican migrants, as U.S. censuses do not cover their specific ethnic origin. Recent reports by the Pew Research Center (February 2012) show that the current migratory influx from Mexico to the U.S. is just below a net zero, as more Mexicans leave the U.S. Economic problems are, overall, the little stability of Mexican peso exchange rate compared to the United States dollar. That is the reason for many Mexicans to leave their country and look for better salaries in the United States, so they can send dollars to their families in Mexico. This case, however, is mainly temporary. Many others chose to permanently reside there with their families.


Aside from the United States, Mexican immigrants have settled in Canada, Spain, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, France, Nigeria, Japan and other countries. A large Mexican immigrant population also exists in Central and South American countries as Guatemala, Costa Rica, Cuba, Brazil, Colombia and Chile. Mexican Mennonites settled in Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay. There have been cases of Mexicans working and residing in Ukraine and Saudi Arabia where they are employed as construction and oil labor contractors. Under "Aliyah", or the immigration of Jews of the Diaspora to Israel, an unspecified number of Mexican Jews have immigrated to Israel. In recent years Mexican business and enigineering professionals have settled in African countries like Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.

Canada has a program that hires Mexican agricultural workers on a temporary basis. Many countries allow Mexicans opportunities in areas like science research, to study at colleges and universities, and through other cultural exchanges. The mass departure of artists, scientists, actors and more has led to a Mexican brain drain. However, recent years have shown an uptick in immigration to Mexico.[1]

Type of people and impact on Mexican society[edit]

Generally, the people who tend to leave Mexico to the United States are from lower-class backgrounds and of mestizo[dubious ] or indigenous ancestries. They primarily come from the following nine states: Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Hidalgo, Chiapas[2] and Sinaloa. In these states it is not uncommon to see towns where men are absent, and are supposed to be working in the United States. While the women take care of their children, husbands send money (dollars) to their families in Mexico. This money, sent by Mexican workers abroad to their country, is called the Spanish "remesas", and the amount of it have become the second income that Mexico receives from other countries. (The first one is oil sales)

On the other hand, people from the educated middle-upper class, are usually criollo[dubious ] or other Mexicans of European descent and some of castizo[dubious ] descent, they emigrate to the United States, but also many emigrate to Canada and European countries; they're usually employed by companies, universities, or many of them start their own businesses abroad.

Traditionally, richer people with overwhelming income used to live in Mexico, but recent economic opportunities and advantages with international treaties, harassing, and threatening insecurity have made them leave the country.

Causes and origins[edit]

Following the Mexican–American War which was concluded by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, and later, the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, approximately 300,000 Mexican nationals found themselves living within the United States. Throughout the rest of the 19th century early 20th century, Mexican migration was not subject to any restrictions, and Mexicans were free to move across the border, and often did so, typically in order for them to work in professions such as the construction of the railway system, or as seasonal agricultural laborers. From 1910 to 1920, the political violence and societal chaos caused by the Mexican Revolution also played a role in increasing migration northwards. Economic inequality, rural poverty, significantly lower wages, and better opportunities have also played a role throughout the 20th century as factors pulling Mexicans to migrate to the US.

The immigration laws of the United States such as Emergency Quota Act generally allowed exemptions for Mexico, while being more restrictive to citizens of the Eastern Hemisphere.[3] Mexicans received special allowances under United States immigration law due to the importance of Mexican labor in the United States economy. One example of these allowances is the Immigration Act of 1917. Under this act, all potential immigrants would have to pass a literacy test and pay a head tax.[citation needed] At the request of growers in the southwest who depended on farm labor from Mexico, the Secretary of Labor waived those requirements for Mexican immigrants.[3] The groups interested in the availability of inexpensive labor ensured that the immigration laws in place throughout the early 20th century did not adversely affect the movement of Mexican migrants, in spite of calls on the part of some of the southern states’ congressmen to put an end to the open border policies.[citation needed]

Effects of governmental policies on Mexican immigration in the U.S.[edit]

Restrictive regulations[edit]

Mexico–United States barrier at the border of Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, USA. The crosses represent migrants who died in the crossing attempt. Some identified, some not. Surveillance tower in the background.

The economic crisis of 1929 brought an abrupt end to the special allowances that had been allowed for Mexican immigrants.[4] With the beginning of the Great Depression, the worldwide economic slowdown and the desperate search for jobs within the United States of America, anti-immigration sentiment rose. Thousands of Mexicans were forced back across the border and barriers to future immigrants were constructed. From 1929 to 1931, legal Mexican immigration entries fell by 95%, and in the next ten years as many as 400,000 Mexican citizens were repatriated.[3]

More admissive regulations[edit]

The limitations on Mexican immigration lasted until the beginning of World War II, when the United States found itself short of labor. In 1942 the United States and Mexico instituted the Bracero program. Under this arrangement, millions of Mexican laborers were contracted to complete agricultural work in the United States. While under contract they were given housing and received a minimum wage of thirty cents an hour. The program was intended to provide the United States with temporary workers while many working-aged men were away at war. In order to ensure that braceros did not stay in the United States, their wives and families were not allowed to accompany them in the U.S. Additionally, 10% of each worker’s wage was withheld to be given back upon the worker’s return to Mexico but few U.S. employers complied.

The Bracero Program allowed agribusiness access to a large pool of labor that had virtually no civil rights, and no recourse to address growing injustices. This inequity was seen in poor working conditions and the decrease in agricultural wages, which during the 1950s, actually dropped below the levels they were at during World War II.[citation needed] As the war ended, few returning soldiers returned to the jobs that the braceros were holding, and instead, they moved on to more industrial areas and reinforced the belief that immigrants take on the jobs that Americans would not be willing to do.

The Mexican government's participation and oversight of the treatment of their workers in this program declined over the years, despite remittances from the program that made up a large part of its domestic economy. The United States began encouraging braceros to cross into Mexico then return illegally to the United States.[citation needed] Upon return they could become legal citizens, and this eliminated any program contracts as well as the ability of the Mexican government to intervene in any future labor relations. In addition to this practice of creating legal citizens of former braceros, thousands of illegal immigrants were crossing the border in search of the opportunity promised by the idea of steady employment and eventual prosperity of the Bracero Program.

A return to a more closed border[edit]

In response to the growing number of Mexicans entering illegally, the United States government implemented Operation Wetback in 1954. Under the direction of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Border Patrol began deporting Mexicans who were in the United States illegally, and up to one million Mexicans were deported. Operation Wetback ended not long after its launch, due to the complaints regarding the violence involved in the deportations, and the fact that in many cases children of immigrants who were United States citizens were deported with their parents.[5]

Continuing migration[edit]

Although the Bracero Program ended in 1964, the migration of Mexican workers did not. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 which had put limits on the total number of visas granted, was amended in 1965 following the termination of the Bracero Program. These amendments put an end to the quota system, and instead, created a total number of visas allowed to the Western Hemisphere. Exceptions to that total number were granted to spouses, minors and parents of United States citizens. However, the total allotment of 120,000 in 1965 still was not enough to address the demand for visas from Mexico. By 1976, there was a two-year waiting period for any eligible applicant from the Western Hemisphere before they could receive a visa.[3]

Displaced workers in northern Mexico[edit]

A contributing factor to the persistently high numbers of migrants from Mexico was the creation of the Border Industrialization Program in 1965. The termination of the Bracero Program in 1964 had led to both a shortage of workers willing to work for lower wages in the United States, and a high population of displaced workers at the northern Mexico border. The result of this imbalance in the supply and demand of labor in the two countries in turn led the creation of this new agreement that allowed the construction of foreign-owned factories in northern Mexico. These factories are referred to as maquiladoras or maquilas, and provided both Mexico and the United States with a number of benefits. The factories provided Mexico with a way to increase its manufactured exports to the United States, and in return, the United States received tax benefits for placing its factories within Mexico. For example, the equipment imported into Mexico to be used in the factories was not subject to import taxes, and the final product was only taxed on the value that was added at the factory, rather than the entirety of the item.[6]

The creation of the maquilas program provided jobs to the displaced Bracero Program workers and allowed the United States to continue to use labor from Mexico, which was less expensive than labor in the United States. The popularity of this program is evident in the incredible increase in the number of maquilas in operation: in 1967 there were 57 maquiladoras operating in Mexico; less than ten years later in 1976, that number had increased to 552. The rise in the number of available jobs in the region led to an extreme swell in the population of the border towns. The maquiladora industry employed 4000 people in 1967, and by 1981 that amount grew to more than 130,000.[7] The maquilas drew the population north to the border in search of employment opportunities, but in many cases the northward pull did not stop there. The proximity of the United States with its markedly higher standard of living continued to pull the people who had migrated to border region even farther north, and led to higher numbers of migrants crossing the United States – Mexico border.

Amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act continued throughout the 1970s. In 1976 the United State Congress imposed a limit of 20,000 visas per country per year in the Western Hemisphere. At that time Mexico was exceeding that amount by approximately 40,000. In 1978 a new amendment was put in place that enacted a worldwide immigration policy, allowing 290,000 visas per year total, with no limitations per country.

The end of the Bracero Program combined with restrictions put on the number of visas allowed by the United States greatly increased the levels of illegal migration from Mexico.[3] As a response, in 1986 the United States enacted the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). Under this act, all undocumented migrants living in the United States as of January 1, 1982, as well as those who had labored in the seasonal agriculture work for at least ninety days during the previous years were granted legal residence. IRCA also made it possible to impose civil and criminal penalties on any employer who knowingly hired undocumented workers. Although a legalization of current undocumented workers, coupled with the increase in penalties suffered by employers who employed future undocumented workers was meant to decrease the total number of undocumented migrants in the United States, the actions did not produce the desired effect; as is evidenced by the number of apprehensions achieved through border patrolling.

Recent trend reversal in migration Mexico-U.S.[edit]

Still today, Mexico is the country with the most emigrants in the world, but during the last few years, migratory patterns from Mexico to the United States have changed. A report by the Pew Research Center (February 2012) has shown that for the first time in 60 years, migration trends have reversed, as more Mexicans leave the U.S. than enter it.

Reasons for trend reversal[edit]

Several major factors seem to contribute to a general sense among Mexican migrants that there is less profit and more danger to migrate to the U.S., leading many of them to decide that it is better to leave the U.S. or stay in Mexico:[8]

  • The decline of fertility in Mexico has resulted in proportionally fewer young people, and thus lower migration to the U.S.[9]
  • The 2008–2012 economic crisis of 2008 has led to a decline of work opportunities in the U.S., meaning that many immigrants who came to the U.S. for work couldn't find any. Access to social security, healthcare and education has also become more difficult.
  • The economic situation in Mexico has become better, ensuring better access to healthcare, education, and jobs. This reduces the incentive for Mexicans to leave the country.
  • Since 2010, U.S. legislation on illegal immigration has been reinforced, as several American states criminalized illegal immigration. Deportations under the Obama administration have reached record numbers.
  • During the last few years, violence associated with drug cartels and organized crime has been on the rise in Northern Mexico, making the routes for passing the border more dangerous.
  • Mexicans and Americans Thinking Together (MATT) conducted 600 in-depth, in person interviews of migrants who returned to the Mexican state of Jalisco, that found family reasons and nostalgia are the primary cited reasons for return migration Mexico. The research also found that of the interviewed migrants who moved back to Mexico, only about 11% were forced to leave the United States due to being deported. 75% of the respondents cited that their reasons for return migration were self-motivated.[10]

Developments in Mexico[edit]

Mexican source communities, mostly indigenous villages, are most often poor and rely heavily on the emigration of a part of their members and the remittances they send back to survive economically. Emigration can function as an escape valve to alleviate economical pressure, as it is a source of income and opens up work opportunities in villages of origin.[11] The return of many migrants now thus causes great stress on these communities, who are heading for economic crisis, as important sources of income fall away and more people become unemployed as there is less work available. The states most affected by this phenomenon try to take action to help those who come back, but the full economic impact of the return of migrants is still to come.[8]

Since emigrants are coming back to their mostly poor home communities, sending them into economic crisis, another migration phenomenon is accelerating: internal migration. The lack of work opportunities in small villages drives people to migrate to large cities, rather than to the U.S.. With 78% of the Mexican population living in urban zones, slums are growing fast. Urban violence and crime, stunted growth, malnutrition, poor elementary education, poor hygiene and sanitation are just some of the implications of life in urban slums. According to UNICEF, urban migration has badly worsened the reach of social schemes of health and nutrition.[12]

Among communities of origin, there is a widespread ambivalence towards migrants, as the money they send back is welcome, but there is resentment against the cultural changes that they bring with them when they come back. Returning migrants are blamed for bringing with them drug use, sexually transmitted diseases, and antisocial behavior. They are held responsible for the abandonment of the traditional indigenous way of life as they bring back western cultural habits and material culture. The return of migrants to Mexico thus has important cultural repercussions and changes the face of their home communities forever.[11]

Developments in the U.S.[edit]

In the U.S., Hispanics account for 54% of the day labor workforce[dubious ] and there is a large market for cheap day-laborers. This sector constitutes a non-negligible part of the U.S. economy. With the current migration trends, within a few years, Mexico will not be able to cover current demand for Mexican labor of its neighbor anymore. Migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to the U.S. is rising, as their migrants begin to replace Mexican workers. It is however unclear whether other Hispanic American countries follow these trends, and it is unsure whether the gap left by returning Mexican will be filled by such migrants. Experts say the consequences for the U.S. economy may be important.[8]

Since 2010, deportations of illegal immigrants have increased, as deportation procedures became more systematic and border controls were reinforced with police and military patrols. Several states, such as Arizona and Alabama, have passed laws that criminalize illegal migration. Proposed acts that offer easier paths to U.S. citizenship for immigrants, such as the DREAM-act, have been rejected.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cave, Damien (21 September 2013). "For Migrants, New Land of Opportunity Is Mexico" – via NYTimes.com. 
  2. ^ "Migración internacional en el quinquenio 2005-2010 (International Migration 2005-2010)" (PDF). inegi.gob.mx. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Bean, Frank D. et al (eds). At the Crossroads: Mexico and U.S. Immigration Policy. Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.: 1997 ISBN 0847683923.
  4. ^ Lorey, David E. The U.S.-Mexican Border in the Twentieth Century. Wilmington, Scholarly Resources, Inc.: 1999 ISBN 0842027564.
  5. ^ Public Broadcasting Services “The Border History”.
  6. ^ Morales, Gerard et al. “An Overview of the Maquiladora Program”. United States Department of Labor. 1994.
  7. ^ Seligson, Mitchell A. & Edward J. Williams. Maquiladoras and Migration: Workers in the Mexico – United States Border Industrialization Program. Austin, University of Texas Press: 1981, ISBN 0292750722.
  8. ^ a b c Nájar, A. (2012-03-09). Migración mexicana en EE.UU.: el flujo ahora va en sentido contrario. BBC
  9. ^ What Mexican immigration problem? Richard Miles USA Today Jan 2015 https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2015/01/03/mexican-immigration-richard-miles/21056155/
  10. ^ Mexicans and Americans Thinking Together (MATT)Quantitative Research Study Preliminary Findings and Insights The US/Mexico Cycle End of an Era http://www.matt.org/uploads/2/4/9/3/24932918/returnmigration_top_line_www.pdf Dec 2013
  11. ^ a b Fitzgerald, D., 2009. A Nation of Emigrants: How Mexico manages its Migration. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press ISBN 0520257057.
  12. ^ UNICEF, 2012. The State of the World’s Children 2012, Executive Summary: Children in an Urban World. New York: United Nations Children’s Fund.