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Emigration | Mexico |

Mexico Background information Immigration Emigration Irregular Migration State Policies Challenges References


David Fitzgerald

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One of the most unusual features of Mexican migration is the concentration of more than 98 percent of its migrants on one destination – the United States.

Figure 1: Mexican Emigrants to the United States as a Percentage of the Mexican Population, 1900-2005 (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/2.0/de

Exposure to the northern neighbor takes place on a massive scale. A quarter of the Mexican adult population has visited or lived in the United States, and 60 percent have a relative living there. Roughly eleven million Mexicans, representing 11 percent of Mexico's population, lived in the United States in 2005. An estimated 400,000 more Mexicans join the net U.S. population each year.

Mexicans are by far the largest nationality of immigrants in the United States. The Mexico-born represented 30 percent of the total foreign-born population of the United States in 2002, including 21 percent of the legal immigrants and an estimated 57 percent of the unauthorized. The 25 million people of Mexican origin in the United States in 2002, including both native and foreign-born, amounted to 8.7 percent of the U.S. population.

How has the migration profile changed in recent years?

Migration from Mexico to the United States in recent years has become more diverse in its geographic origins within Mexico, more dispersed in its U.S. geographic destinations, and more permanent.

Diversification within Mexico

Figure 2: "Mexicans" in the United States by Place of Birth, 1900-2000 (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/2.0/de

The Central West plateau in Mexico has been the primary source of emigration for the past century. Even in 2003, a third of the Mexicans in the United States were born in just three adjacent states: Jalisco, Michoacán, and Guanajuato. In relative terms, the highest levels of emigration are from the states of Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Durango in the same region. Since the 1990s, however, emigration has touched almost the entire country. The 2000 census found migration or the receipt of remittances in 96 percent of the country's 2443 municipios (counties). Emigration from the south and the central region around Mexico City increased from 22 percent of the national total in 1990 to 30 percent in 2005. The eastern state of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico has become an important source region for the first time.

Dispersion within the United States
The Mexican-born population of the United States has become increasingly dispersed. The national share of Mexican immigrants living in California, Texas, Illinois, and Arizona fell from 89 percent in 1990 to 72 percent in 2002. Although California remains the primary destination by far, with 42.8 percent of the Mexican-born population, the Southeast and New York have emerged as major destinations for the first time. Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina are now among the top ten destination states. Dispersal is being driven in large part by the high cost of living in traditional destinations and the availability of work in the Southeast and Midwest's poultry and meat processing, light manufacturing, and construction industries. Although wages are lower in the Southeast and Midwest than in California, the high cost of housing in California and the saturation of low-skilled labor markets are making it a relatively less-attractive destination.

Permanent settlement
Through the 1960s, Mexican migration to the United States was dominated by the circular migration of men who returned regularly to their hometowns in Mexico. Since then, a secular trend towards settlement and whole-family migration has emerged. Although Mexicans continue to dominate agricultural labor in the Southwest, most Mexicans have left seasonal work and are employed in a widening range of economic sectors, particularly in the low-skilled service industries and construction. These jobs are decreasingly seasonal, as even highly-capitalized agriculture requires permanent crews to maintain equipment and perform other tasks.

U.S. immigration policy has given another major push to settlement, sometimes inadvertently. The 1986 U.S. Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) sharply accelerated a trend towards permanent settlement by legalizing 2.3 million Mexicans. The newly legalized then sponsored the legal immigration of their family members or paid the smuggling fees for their entry. Women averaged just under half of authorized Mexican migrants both before and after the 1986 IRCA legislation, but they have become an increasing share of the unauthorized migration flow. Women constituted a quarter of unauthorized Mexicans before IRCA and a third afterwards. Escalation of U.S. border enforcement since 1993 has also contributed to long-term Mexican settlement in the United States by raising the people-smuggling costs and physical risks of making multiple unauthorized entries.

Other immigration policies and politics in the United States have contributed to the settlement trend by encouraging naturalization. Historically, Mexicans have been among the national-origin group in the United States least likely to naturalize, given high levels of circularity and temporary migration and a political culture that views U.S. naturalization as a quasi-traitorous rejection of Mexico. In 1995, 19 percent of eligible Mexican immigrants naturalized compared to 66 percent of Europeans and 56 percent of Asians. By 2001, more than a third of eligible Mexican immigrants were naturalizing. The increase is a reaction to the anti-immigrant U.S. political climate in the mid-1990s yielding California's 1994 Proposition 187, which would have denied a range of social benefits to unauthorized migrants had it not been overturned by the courts; the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act easing deportations of legal residents who had committed a broadened range of crimes; and the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act limiting welfare benefits for noncitizens. Mexicans have naturalized to protect themselves from the growing practical distinction between being a legal resident and citizen.

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