Background informationCapital: 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)


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, yet the influences of all three forms of migration have been felt.

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.

Nineteenth Century Conquest

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

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 1.3


In 2000, there were 493,000 foreign-born residents of Mexico. The largest contingents of foreign-born are descendents of Mexican emigrants born in the United States and U.S. and Canadian retirees concentrated in places like the Pacific coasts of Baja California, Sonora and San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, and the Lake Chapala area outside Guadalajara in the Central West. These groups represent 63.2% of the foreign-born older than five years, followed by Europeans (11.9%), Central Americans (11.2%), South Americans (7.3%), Asians (2.9%), and others (1.0%).45



Mexico is a major country of transit for unauthorized migration to the United States. It shares more than 1000 kilometers of border with Guatemala and Belize, much of it through rugged jungle or forested terrain in the poorest parts of Mexico. Train routes leading north have been a popular and dangerous means of illicit migration, all the more since gangs have made a steady business of preying on migrants. Since the 1990s, the Mexican authorities have increased their presence along transportation routes in the frontier region even as the border itself remains largely unguarded. Authorities denied entry or deported 125,000 migrants in 1990, which rose to 250,000 by 2005. The primary source countries of transmigrants are Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Despite these efforts, and given widespread corruption among Mexican law enforcement, many migrants are able to cross Mexico from south to north. In fiscal year 2005, non-Mexicans made up approximately 14 percent of U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions, most of them made on the U.S. Mexico border.7 Smaller groups of migrants from China and Ecuador have been intercepted trying to reach Mexico by sea with the intention of then crossing over into the United States by land, though there are no reliable estimates of the numbers of seaborne entrants.


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.8 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.9

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
1011municipios (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.12

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 2002.13 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.14Permanent 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.15 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.16 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.17

Irregular Migration


State Policies

The Mexican Stance
21The U.S. Stance

  • Should unauthorized migrants living in the United States have a path to become legal residents and/or citizens? If so, what should be the required period of residence, English-speaking ability, level of fees, and requirements to leave the United States before legalizing?
  • What kinds of employer sanctions for hiring unauthorized workers, databases for identifying eligible workers, and enforcement strategies should be developed without elevating the risk of discrimination against authorized Latinos or foreigners?
  • Should there be a new temporary-worker program or simply a revision of existing temporary-worker programs? How many times should temporary-worker visas be renewable, and should they offer the holders the possibility of eventually becoming a citizen? Should the visas be portable among different employers; what incentives for migrants to return to their home country should be developed, what labor rights should temporary workers have, and what provisions should be made for family reunification?
  • What border enforcement measures should be in place?

Paisano program has tried to ease the return of vacationing migrants by cracking down on police who extort returnees. Mexican consulates began to pay more attention to legal protections of Mexican nationals in the United States, particularly the 50 or so Mexican nationals on Death Row, and the human rights of unauthorized border crossers. The 46 Mexican consulates in the United States are promoting a identification document that is of greatest use to unauthorized migrants without a Mexican passport. There has been an intense debate in the United States about whether the should be accepted as a legitimate identification document allowing the bearer to open a U.S. bank account, board a commercial flight, or prove identity to U.S. police.

The Mexican Congress further attempted to integrate nationals abroad by changing the constitution in 1997 to allow Mexicans who naturalize abroad and the children of Mexicans born abroad to claim Mexican nationality. People with dual nationality can buy property along the coast and border, which are restricted zones for foreigners, but strictly speaking, they do not have dual citizenship. Most importantly, dual nationals cannot vote in Mexican elections.22

The Mexican government also institutionalized ties with emigrants through the Program for Mexican Communities Abroad (PCME). Since 1990, the PCME has built on existing efforts by migrants and local priests to organize based on their Mexican hometowns. The PCME creates formal ties between the clubs and the Mexican government at the federal, state, and county levels. These relationships are the basis for matching funds programs like Tres por Uno2324

In 2006, Mexicans abroad voted in their presidential election by absentee ballot for the first time. Three million Mexicans in the United States were eligible to vote, but only 57,000 tried to register to vote and less than 33,000 cast valid ballots. Fifty-eight percent voted for the candidate of the incumbent National Action Party (PAN).

Challenges and Future Developments

Demographic changes
Mexican government demographers anticipate that pressure to emigrate will lessen as relatively fewer young people enter the workforce in coming years. Demographic growth in Mexico slowed dramatically from 3.5 percent annual growth in 1965 to 0.89 in 2006. Mexican women are having far fewer children. The total fertility rate declined from 7.2 in 1960 to 2.3 in 2003. The National Population Council estimates that the rate of growth of the working age population (ages 15-59) is slowing and that it will begin to shrink in 2027. Nevertheless, a quarter of the working age population remains underemployed.25US policies towards Mexican immigration    

About the Author:
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. Email:


References and Further Reading

    • Bean, F. D., and Stevens, G. (2003): America's Newcomers and the Dynamics of Diversity. New York.
    • Buchenau, J. (2001). "Small Numbers, Great Impact: Mexico and its Immigrants, 1821-1973." Journal of American Ethnic History 20: 23-49.
    • Cornelius, W. A. and Salehyan, I. (2007): "Does border enforcement deter unauthorized immigration? The case of Mexican migration to the United States of America." Regulation & Governance 1: 139-153.
    • Durand, J., and Massey, D. S. (eds) (2004): Crossing the Border: Research from the Mexican Migration Project. New York.
    • Fitzgerald, D. (Forthcoming): A Nation of Emigrants: How Mexico Manages its Migration. Berkeley, CA.
    • Fitzgerald, D. (2005): "Nationality and Migration in Modern Mexico." Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 31: 171-91.
    • Massey, D. S. et al. (1998): Worlds in Motion: Understanding International Migration at the End of the Millennium. Oxford.
    • Massey, D. S., Durand, J. and Malone, N.J. (2002): Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Free Trade. New York.
    • Ogren, C. (2007): "Migration and Human Rights on the Mexico-Guatemala Border." International Migration 45: 203-243.
    • Smith, R. C. (2006): Mexican New York: The Transnational Lives of New Immigrants. Berkeley.
    • Zogby, J. and Rubio, L. (2006): How We See Each Other: The CIDAC-Zogby International Survey of Attitudes in Mexico and the United States of America. Utica, New York and Mexico City.
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