Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Survey of Mexican Migrants, Part Three

IV. The Transition to America: New Directions for Many but an Old Pattern Emerges

The respondents to the Survey of Mexican Migrants have been very successful in finding jobs in the U.S. The probability of unemployment is relatively high in the first six months in the U.S. but the situation improves dramatically thereafter. Overall, low education levels, weak English-language skills and lack of a U.S. government-issued ID do not seem to pose barriers to finding work in the U.S. The transition into the U.S. labor force is greatly eased by the presence of family and social networks. The majority of migrants have relatives in the U.S., many in the same town, and the most commonly cited means of finding a job is talking with friends and family in the U.S. While many respondents do not find jobs in their old industry of employment from Mexico, most are working in closely related industries. Thus, migrants who were principally employed in agriculture, construction and manufacturing in Mexico are largely employed in the same general type of work in the U.S. Given the low level of unemployment among respondents the demand for their services in these industries would appear to be high.

Unemployment after Arrival in the U.S.

Unemployment among survey respondents is remarkably low. Only about 5% of migrants who have been in the U.S. for six months or more report not working in an industry in the U.S. (Table 7). The proportion of respondents who reported not working ranges from a low of 4.6% among those who entered the U.S. three to five years ago to 5.7% among those who arrived six to 24 months ago. Unemployment among migrants with longer tenure in the U.S. falls in between these proportions. The estimates in Table 7, derived in the manner discussed in the previous section and adjusted to account for the fact that some migrants in the U.S. are students, housewives or retirees, correspond closely with other estimates of unemployment among foreign-born Hispanic workers in the U.S. For example, using Current Population Survey data, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated an unemployment rate of less than 6% for foreign-born Hispanic workers in 2004 (Kochhar, 2005).8

The likelihood of unemployment is elevated only for the first six months of a migrant worker’s stay in the U.S. As shown in Table 7, 14.8% of survey respondents who have been in the U.S. for less than six months reported they were without work. That is nearly three times the level of unemployment for migrants who arrived more than two years ago. It is also about three times as high as the overall rate of unemployment in the U.S. But, as is clear from Table 7, unemployment among migrants is observed to plunge dramatically after the initial six months in the U.S.

The fact that unemployment among migrants falls to prevailing levels in the U.S. labor market within six months is suggestive of a high level of demand for their services. Low levels of education, poor English-speaking ability and the apparent lack of authorization to work do not seem to hinder the process. Table 8 shows the education levels of respondents after excluding students, housewives and retirees from among those who reported not working in an industry in the U.S. Relatively low levels of education plague all respondents regardless of their year of arrival. However, unemployment is equally low across groups of workers who have been in the U.S. for more than six months. In fact, the newest arrivals, those with less than six months in the U.S., are, relatively speaking, the best educated group. Thirty-eight percent of them have graduated from high school or have some college education, yet unemployment is highest within this group. Clearly, the likelihood of unemployment is dependent not on the level of education but on time spent in the U.S.

Similarly, English ability and possession of a U.S. government-issued ID are unrelated to the level of unemployment. As shown in Table 8, 83% of respondents who arrived less than six months ago, excluding students, housewives and retirees, do not have a U.S. government-issued photo ID. This proportion is unchanged over the next 18 months but, nonetheless, the likelihood of unemployment falls rapidly. The ability to speak English also improves only slightly over the first two years. Overall, the dramatic turnaround in unemployment in six months’ time is unrelated to any improvements in education, fluency in English or change in authorization status.

The employment experience of respondents to the survey would appear to be consistent with the view that there is robust demand for the services of these migrants. As indicated by their low rate of unemployment, finding work does not seem to be an issue for these workers despite their low levels of schooling, poor English-language skills and lack of authorization to work in the U.S. There are, however, two other aspects to this. At least some of the observed drop in unemployment after six months in the U.S. may be caused by the return migration of workers unable to find jobs. Further, the quality of jobs held by these workers is in doubt. As shown in a subsequent section, episodes of unemployment and low wages are not uncommon for the respondents to the survey.

Finding a Job in the U.S.

The keys to finding a job in the U.S. for survey respondents were family and social networks and personal initiative. The vast majority of migrants have relatives other than a spouse or child in the U.S., many of whom live in the same town or in the same household. It is, therefore, not a coincidence that the most common method by which respondents acquire job information is talking with friends and family in the U.S. Visiting job sites is the second most common method. As revealed by the employment experience of these workers, their job search methods translate into great success in finding jobs in the U.S.

Respondents to the Survey of Mexican Migrants have very strong familial connections to the U.S. More than 80% of respondents have a relative other than a spouse or child in the U.S. (Table 9). This is true even of 75% of respondents who have been in the U.S. for only two years or less. For most migrants (67%) their relatives live in the same town and a majority (54%) of respondents indicated they lived in the same household as the relative. The likelihood of having a relative increases with time in the U.S., presumably through marriage and the arrival of extended family members from Mexico in later years.

The strong family ties, and the social network they comprise, are clearly important to the economic assimilation of respondents. The survey asked each respondent to report the two most important ways they received employment information in the U.S. The method cited most often—45% of the time— was talking with people you know in the United States (“Hablando con conocidos en los EE.UU”) . (Table 10). Taking personal initiative and visiting job sites was cited 22% of the time and is the second most common method for finding job information (Table 10). Other significant sources of job information are acquaintances in Mexico, newspapers and radio or TV news. Visiting employment agencies or unemployment offices to find a job barely receives mention as a source of job information. That, of course, is not surprising for a sample of mostly unauthorized migrants. Instead, the success in finding jobs is built on the support of family and friends in place in the United States.

The importance of social networks is somewhat greater for the recently arrived, younger and less well educated respondents. As shown in Table 11, respondents who arrived in the U.S. in the past two years or were younger than 29 were the most likely to report the use of friends and family in the U.S. to gather job information. Nonetheless, talking to acquaintances in the U.S. is a method used by a high plurality of respondents of virtually all ages and lengths of residence in the U.S. The exceptions are respondents who arrived more than 15 years ago or are older than 50. Another exception is college-educated respondents. Only 32% of those with at least some college education reported talking with friends and family in the U.S. for job information. Other than visiting job sites, an alternative method cited with some frequency by the better educated migrants was using the internet. Almost 10% of high school graduates and 17% of college attendees visited the internet for job information.9

The Transition from Industries in Mexico to Industries in the U.S.

The Survey of Mexican Migrants shows that most workers from Mexico transition into new industries in the U.S.10 But an old theme also emerges. While still in Mexico, respondents to the survey were principally employed in agriculture, construction and manufacturing. The same general pattern holds true for them in the U.S. If they do not find employment in their old industry from Mexico, respondents tend to gravitate to construction, hospitality, manufacturing or agriculture in the U.S. Thus, the demand for the services of migrants from Mexico would appear to be highest in these industries.

About three-quarters of newly arrived migrants, unless they worked in hospitality or construction in Mexico, are employed in new industries in the U.S. This situation is typified by the experience of respondents who arrived in the past two years. Migrants who have been in the U.S. longer are more settled into local labor markets and their current employment experience is less indicative of a transition from Mexico. Table 12 shows the old and new industries of employment for respondents to the survey. Looking at the group that entered the U.S. two years or less ago, only 22% of migrants who worked in agriculture in Mexico also work in agriculture in the U.S. Low rates of reemployment in the same industry are also observed for recently arrived migrants who worked in manufacturing (27%), cleaning and maintenance (27%), domestic service (23%) or commerce (12%) in Mexico.

Two Mexican industries—hospitality and construction—appear to provide smooth transitions to the U.S. More than 60% of recently arrived construction workers from Mexico are doing the same work in the U.S. Similarly, 45% of newly arrived hospitality workers from Mexico are in the same industry. In part, this may reflect local demand in the U.S. Many new arrivals are moving into new areas of settlement where either construction is booming (e.g. Atlanta) or hospitality services are widespread (e.g. New York).

In addition to the respondents’ old industries of employment from Mexico, the new avenues of employment in the U.S. are the hospitality, construction and manufacturing industries. For example, as shown in Table 12, while only 22% of recently arrived agricultural workers from Mexico work in the same industry in the U.S., another 50% of those workers found jobs in hospitality, construction and manufacturing. These industries also served as valuable sources of employment for migrants from other sectors in Mexico. Thus, even as Mexican workers disperse across new industries in the U.S. they do not stray far from the economic roots they left behind.

Making the move into new industries of employment appears to have been less common among the long-term migrants. Table 12 also shows the pattern of industry transition for respondents who have been in the U.S. for more than 15 years and for all respondents combined. Respondents who have been in the U.S. for more than 15 years show a relatively high rate of reemployment (33%), even in agriculture. Their success in staying within hospitality (55%), construction (53%), manufacturing (50%) and cleaning/maintenance (61%) is also generally above average. All respondents combined also have higher rates of employment in the same industries in comparison with recently arrived migrants. For example, the average rates of reemployment in manufacturing (37%), hospitality (49%) and cleaning and maintenance (42%) are higher than those attained by the recent arrivals. Of course, respondents with longer stays in the U.S. have had more time to assimilate in the labor market. It is possible that after initial dispersion into new industries they have circled back into their old industries of employment from Mexico.

In conclusion, it is important to note that, regardless of the year of arrival, migrants from Mexico remain concentrated in the agriculture, construction, hospitality and manufacturing industries in the U.S. In other words, the locus of demand for the services of these workers has not shifted over time.

  1. Unpublished tabulations by the Center also indicate an unemployment rate of 6% among all foreign-born Mexican workers in the U.S. in 2004.
  2. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 44% of adult internet users in the U.S. looked for job information online in January 2005. Since 67% of American adults reported being online, this meant that about 30% of all American adults used the internet for job information at the time of the survey.
  3. A more complete analysis would also consider the occupational transition of workers. It would be desirable to know, for example, whether those with clerical or assembly-line production jobs in Mexico find similar employment in the U.S. Unfortunately, the survey does not contain the necessary level of detail on occupations.
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