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Background information | Mexico |

Mexico Background information Immigration Emigration Irregular Migration State Policies Challenges References

Background information

David Fitzgerald

/ 4 Minuten zu lesen

Mexico is a country of immigration, transmigration – mostly from Central America to the United States – and emigration, mostly to the United States. For the past century, emigration has far outweighed the other forms of international migration.

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Historical Development


Like countries throughout the Western Hemisphere, Mexico attempted to attract immigrants from Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Few immigrants came, however, due to high levels of political instability in Mexico and more attractive alternatives for transatlantic migrants, such as the United States, Argentina, and Canada. Only half a percent of late-nineteenth-century transatlantic European immigrants settled in Mexico. With the failure to draw Europeans, Mexico tried to attract Chinese immigrants in the late nineteenth century. Yet, when the United States closed the door to most non-European immigrants in the 1920s Mexico quickly followed suit, restricting the entry of Asians, Middle Easterners, and Eastern Europeans as part of a racist backlash against the post-revolutionary imagining of Mexico as a mestizo nation forged of Spaniards and the indigenous population. The foreign-born share of the Mexican population rose from 0.4 percent in 1900 to 1 percent in 1930, but since then has gradually declined, reaching 0.5 percent in 2000.

Background InformationMexico

Capital: Mexico City
Official language: Spanish
Area: 1.972.550 km2
Population (2007): 108.7 million (CIA Factbook)
Population density (2005): 54.5 inhabitants per km2
Population growth (2006): 0.89% (OECD)
Labour force participation rate (2007): 42% (CIA Factbook)
Foreign population as a percentage of total (2000): 0.5% (INEGI)
Unemployment rate (2007): 3.7% (CIA Factbook)
Religions (2000): Roman Catholic 76.5%, Protestant 6.3%, Unspecified 13.8%, Other/ None 3.4% (INEGI)


Nineteenth Century Conquest
Migration between Mexico and the United States is "the largest sustained flow of migrant workers in the contemporary world". Mexico shares a 3200-kilometer border with the United States. The difficulty of policing such a long border, and the exposure that it implies between the two countries, are two reasons why Mexican migration has been so intense. Yet few immigrants were born in the border region; most are from states hundreds of kilometers south. Indeed, 2300 kilometers of highway separate the city of Tijuana on the northwest border with California from Guadalajara in the heart of Mexico's migrant-sending region in the Central West. Military and economic interventions by the United States, direct U.S. recruitment, and turmoil in Mexico have played a fundamental historical role in generating migration from Mexico to the United States.

The 1836 secession of Texas and 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending a two-year war between the United States and Mexico, stripped Mexico of more than half of its territory. About 80,000 Mexicans lived in the northern territory at the time. In the felicitous phrase of contemporary immigrant activists, they didn't cross the border; the border crossed them. Most Mexicans in the United States trace their ancestry to twentieth century migration, however. Demographers estimate that had there not been any migration from Mexico in the twentieth century, the Mexican-origin population of the United States would only be 14 percent of its current size.

Recruitment and Revolution
Significant migration to the United States began at the turn of the twentieth century as recruiters from U.S. railroads and farms, known as enganchadores, traveled into the Mexican interior seeking workers. From 1917 to 1921, the United States brought in 70,000 contracted workers as a unilateral emergency measure to fill labor shortages from World War I. The 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution and the Cristero wars between the secularizing government and Catholic rebels in the late 1920s and 1930s sent hundreds of thousands fleeing north. The border with the United States was effectively open at the time, as the U.S. Border Patrol was not created until 1924, and countries in the Western Hemisphere were exempted from the annual quotas assigned by the U.S. to countries from 1921 to 1965. U.S. employers in the Southwest generally preferred Mexican workers to other nationalities because they were assumed to be a docile workforce that not only would accept low wages and harsh working conditions, but would also return home to Mexico when demand for their labor was slack. During the Great Depression between 1929 and 1939, an estimated 400,000 Mexicans, including many U.S. citizens by virtue of birth in the United States, were repatriated to Mexico.

Increased U.S. demand for labor during World War II led to the 1942 "Bracero" program that continued in various forms until 1964, providing 4.5 million contracts to temporary migrant workers. Unauthorized migration outpaced legal migration during the latter years of the program. The most significant consequence in the long run was the deep embedding of migration into the economic life and cultural expectations of communities in rural Mexico. Bracero pioneers anchored chain migration between individual Mexican communities and particular destinations in the United States to the point that many rural communities in Mexico have more members in satellite communities in the United States than they do at home.

NAFTA and the Persistent Wage Gap
The wage differential between the United States and Mexico has historically been about ten to one. The wage differential for low-skilled workers, which is more relevant for most Mexican migrants, is about five to 1. Most Mexican migrants are not unemployed prior to migrating, nor do they come from the poorest states in Mexico. The problem for Mexico is not so much unemployment, but rather underemployment and persistently low wages relative to those that can be earned in the United States. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into effect in 1994, was sold politically in part as a means to reduce migration by creating more and better paying jobs in the export sector of the Mexican economy. Trade between Mexico and the United States has tripled since NAFTA went into effect, but NAFTA has created both winners and losers in Mexico. It has been a disaster from the point of view of subsistence farmers. They are unable to compete with U.S. agribusinesses enjoying massive government subsidies, economies of scale, use of the latest technology, and easy access to capital. As the Mexican government's corn subsidies have been phased out under NAFTA, Mexican corn farmers are migrating to the United States. A similar process has unwound in the cattle and poultry industries. Mexico now imports half of its meat from the United States while Mexican migrants displaced from their home economies are increasingly working as meatpackers in Midwestern U.S. states.



  1. Massey et al. (1998): 73.

  2. Bean and Stevens (2003): 53.

  3. Cornelius und Salehyan (2007).

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David Fitzgerald is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Field Research Director at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego.