Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Net Migration from Mexico Falls to Zero—and Perhaps Less

II. Migration Between the U.S. and Mexico

The number of Mexican-born immigrants who left the U.S. for Mexico rose sharply from 2005 to 2010, even as the flow of new immigrants to the U.S. from Mexico fell steeply, according to a Pew Hispanic Center analysis of data from both countries.

As a result, net Mexican immigration to the U.S. is at a standstill, and the Mexican-born population in the U.S. leveled off and then declined in the last half of the most recent decade. The Mexican-born population grew 23% from 2000 to 2005, peaked in 2007 at 12.6 million and stabilized for two years before declining slightly in 2010. In 2011, the Mexican-born population in the U.S. decreased still further, to 12.0 million.

These developments represent a notable reversal of the historic pattern of Mexican immigration to the U.S., which has risen dramatically over the past four decades. Mexico is the leading country of origin of U.S. immigrants, and Mexicans in the U.S. are by far the largest population worldwide from any origin country.

From 2005 to 2010, 1.4 million Mexicans and their families (including U.S.-born children) left the U.S. to move to Mexico, according to data from the 2010 Mexican census. That is about double the 670,000 who did so a decade earlier, from 1995 to 2000. While most of these immigrants returned voluntarily, an estimated 5% to 35% returned as a result of deportations between 2005 and 2010 (for more details, see Section 3).

U.S. data on Mexican inflows tell the rest of the migration story from this side of the border. Flows—the number of people added to the U.S. population each year—dropped markedly from 2005 to 2010, totaling 1.4 million for the five-year period, according to estimates based on U.S. Census Bureau data. This represents a marked break from previous years: Total inflows reached about 3 million in each of the two preceding five-year periods.

Mexican Census Data: Return Flows

It has been clear for several years that immigration flows to the U.S. from Mexico have been dwindling since 2006 (Passel and Cohn, 2009), but until recently there had been little hard evidence that flows back to Mexico had grown over the same period. That gap has been filled by new data from the 2010 Mexican census, which show that about twice as many Mexicans returned home in the five years previous to the 2010 census than had done so in the five years before the 2000 census.

This analysis draws on two sets of questions in the Mexican census. One asks all respondents where they had been living five years before the census was taken; the answers provide a count of people who moved from the U.S. to Mexico during that period. A separate question targets more recent emigrants: It asks a sample of all households whether anyone from the household had left for another country during the previous five years; if so, additional questions are asked about whether and when that person or persons came back.

The 2010 Mexican census tallied nearly 1.4 million people—the vast majority of them Mexican adults—who had moved from the U.S. to Mexico between 2005 and 2010. (This combines answers to both questions.) That is nearly double the 667,000 people who had moved to Mexico from the U.S. from 1995 to 2000, according to 2000 Mexican census numbers analyzed by the Pew Hispanic Center.

The total number of U.S.-to-Mexico migrants consists of four main groups. The largest is Mexican born, largely (90%) adults, who lived in the U.S. in five years before the census and in Mexico at the census date. These Mexican-born return migrants more than tripled to 826,000 in 2010 from 267,000 in 2000.

The second group is U.S. born, largely (75%) children, who were in the U.S. five years before the census. This group more than doubled to 153,000 in 2010 from 64,000 in 2000. The third consists of children under 5 who were born in the U.S. and brought to Mexico by the census date. Almost all of these are children of Mexican-born parents, and their number almost doubled to 203,000 from 106,000.

The final large group we designate as “recent migrants.” These people were in Mexico five years before the census but moved to the U.S. in the intervening period and returned to Mexico by the census date.3 There were slightly fewer of the recent migrants in 2010 (205,000) than in 2000 (223,000). Since this group is initially part of the flow of migrants to the U.S. in the period just before the census, the drop undoubtedly reflects the overall drop in Mexico-U.S. migration in recent years.4

The structure of the flow is similar in the two periods. Mexican-born adults are just under three-quarters of the total flow in both periods; Mexican-born children are about 5%. U.S. born children of Mexican parents are the remaining 20%.

U.S.-Born Children

Those who had lived in the U.S. in 2005 but were living in Mexico in 2010 included more than 826,000 Mexican-born migrants ages 5 and older (more than 90% adults) and more than 100,000 U.S.-born children ages 5 and older with Mexican parents.5 In the 2000 Mexican census, the comparable numbers who had lived in the U.S. five years earlier (1995) were about 267,000 Mexican-born migrants ages 5 and older (again, mainly adults) and about 37,000 U.S.-born children ages 5 and older of Mexican parents.

The 2010 Mexican census also counted more than 182,000 U.S.-born children under age 5 with Mexican parents living in Mexico, compared with about 99,000 counted in the 2000 census. These children are considered part of the five-year migration total but they are not captured by the “residence five years ago” question because they were not yet born. The U.S.-born children under 5 represent an estimated 5% to 10% of the roughly 2.5 million children born in the U.S. to Mexican-born parents during the 2006-2010 period.

The total number of U.S.-born children of Mexican parents counted in the 2010 Mexican census was about 500,000, compared with about 240,000 in 2000.6 (According to Pew Hispanic estimates, most of these 500,000 children would have moved to Mexico in the 2005-2010 period.)

It is possible that some U.S.-born children were accompanying parents who were sent back to Mexico by U.S. authorities. The Department of Homeland Security recently provided Congress with the first official data on the number of parents removed from the U.S. who say they have U.S.-born citizen children.

According to the report (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2012), more than 46,000 immigrants removed from the U.S. during the first six months of 2011 said they had U.S.-citizen children. However, the report did not specify the countries of birth of the parents who were repatriated, the total number of U.S.-born children of these migrants or whether the U.S.-born children remained in the United States.7

Children born to immigrant parents in the U.S. have automatic right of citizenship at birth. U.S.-born children of Mexican-born parents automatically acquire dual nationality and thus become citizens of both the U.S. and Mexico. Although each country has its own citizenship laws and policies, both countries allow the automatic acquisition or retention of a foreign nationality, acquired by birth in a foreign country, or through a parent who is a national of another country.8

More Recent Migrants

The same trends shown above for migrants to Mexico who had been living in the U.S. in 2005 apply to Mexicans who had not been in the U.S. in 2005 but moved to the U.S. after that—more recent migrants. The 2010 Mexican census counted a smaller number of recent emigrants than the 2000 census, but a higher number (and share) of returnees from this group.

The 2010 Mexican census counted 995,000 Mexicans who had left for the U.S. since June 2005 and about 310,000 who returned by June 2010. The 2000 Mexican census counted 1.6 million Mexicans who had left since February 1995 and 261,000 who returned by February 2000.

Analyzed by share, the 2010 census showed that nearly one-in-three (31%) of those who had left for the U.S. within the previous five years had returned. That compares with about one-in-six (17%) for those who had left for the U.S. within the five years previous to the 2000 Mexican census.9

When Did Return Flows Rise?

When did return flows to Mexico begin to rise? Evidence from various sources points to sometime late in the decade. A 2005 sample survey by Mexico’s chief statistical agency (INEGI) counted a lower number of returnees who had lived in the U.S. five years earlier (246,000) than either the 2000 Mexican census or the 2010 Mexican census. (The survey, intended to update the 2000 Mexican census, asked fewer questions so more detailed breakdowns about U.S.-born children are not available.)

Another Mexican source that points to increased flows in the last half of the decade is the National Survey of Demographic Dynamics (ENADID). The 2006 demographic survey shows about 274,000 people who had lived outside of Mexico in 2001 and had returned to Mexico by 2006. The number was notably higher in the 2009 demographic survey—about 667,000 people who had lived in the U.S. in 2004 and had gone to Mexico in 2004-2009.

Mexican Census Results Help Explain Earlier Contradictory Data

The Mexican census results help to explain findings from another Mexican household survey that did not show an increased return flow of Mexicans back to their homeland. Mexico’s National Survey of Employment and Occupation (ENOE), which had been cited in a previous Pew Hispanic Center report (Passel and Cohn, 2009) and elsewhere (Rendall et al. 2011) on this issue, indicated that return flows appeared to be stable from 2006 through February 2009. Subsequent ENOE data show decreasing return flows.

However, the employment and occupation survey is designed to measure movement to and from existing households in Mexico that are part of the sample. It does not include moves by entire households, an important contributor to return migration flow. This design feature causes ENOE to understate return migration flows. Furthermore, if patterns of return migration changed, ENOE might not capture the trend over time.

The 2010 Mexican census results indicate that a substantial share of return migrants come back to Mexico with their entire households. These households account for almost half of people counted as returnees in the 2000 and 2010 Mexican censuses, according to the Pew Hispanic analysis.

Recent Flows from U.S. and Mexican Data

Annual inflows of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. can be estimated using census data from the U.S. and Mexico. The U.S. figures are gross numbers that do not account for people who leave the U.S. Data from both countries point to inflows that peaked around 2000 and plunged beginning in 2007.

Looking at arrivals of Mexican immigrants since 1990, U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by the Pew Hispanic Center indicate that more than 700,000 a year came to the U.S. in 1999-2000, during a time when the U.S. economy was thriving. Annual arrivals dropped to about 580,000 with the onset of the early-decade recession. Numbers began rising again; by 2004, annual arrivals exceeded 670,000 annually.

Immigration from Mexico dropped after the U.S. housing market (and construction employment) collapsed in 2006. By 2007, gross inflows from Mexico dipped to 280,000; they continued to fall to 150,000 in 2009 and were even lower in 2010.

The Mexican employment survey (ENOE) shows the same general trends in annual flows from Mexico as the U.S. data do. By 2010, according to ENOE, the flow was only 38% of the 2006 flow to the U.S. Both the U.S. and Mexican data suggest a further slight drop in 2011.

These estimates of immigration flows from Mexico represent new arrivals of both legal immigrants and unauthorized immigrants. For most of the period, the bulk of the flow was unauthorized but for the last several years, it appears that most of the new arrivals are likely to be legal residents. Legal admissions from Mexico averaged about 170,000 per year for 2000-2009 and 140,000 per year for 2010-2011. These legal admissions do not represent all newly arrived immigrants, as a significant share are people who are living in the U.S. but are “adjusting their status” from temporary to legal permanent resident.

Recent Population Trends

The Mexican-born population in the U.S. decreased to 12.0 million in 2011 from its peak of 12.6 million in 2007, and the change entirely reflects reduced unauthorized immigration, according to a Pew Hispanic analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. There were 6.1 million unauthorized Mexican immigrants in the U.S. in 2011, according to Pew Hispanic estimates based on Current Population Survey data, compared with a peak of 7 million in 2007.

By comparison, legal Mexican immigrants (including those with temporary status) numbered 5.8 million in 2011, which is a small increase from 5.6 million in 2007. The overall foreign-born population has continued a relatively steady growth, to 39.6 million in 2011, according to Current Population Survey data.10

The decline in the Mexican-born population is a marked change of pattern for the massive wave of migration from Mexico that began in the late 1960s. It may become the first sustained loss since the 1930s, when the Mexican-born population shrank during the Great Depression. The contemporary decrease is due to the combination of reduced inflows and increased outflows; it cannot be explained by the relatively small number of deaths in the Mexican immigrant population.

Mexican Migration History: U.S. Perspective

For the past century, a large share of Mexican migration has been temporary, so-called circular migration, in which Mexicans (mainly men) came to the U.S. for work, often in agriculture, and returned to their families in Mexico during the off-season. Until the 1970s, the size of the permanent Mexican-born population in the U.S. grew slowly, and there was little in the way of border enforcement (Rosenblum and Brick, 2011).

The Mexican-born population in the U.S., which numbered about 100,000 in 1900, reached about 640,000 in 1930 (Gibson and Jung, 2006). The population fell in the 1930s, as mass unemployment deterred would-be immigrants during the Great Depression and many Mexicans in the U.S. were forcibly deported to Mexico.

By 1970, Mexican-born numbers had risen to about 760,000, but Italy, Germany and Canada surpassed Mexico as leading countries of origin. Rapid growth began in the 1970s—by 1980 there were 2.2 million Mexican immigrants, and Mexico had become the top country of origin for U.S. immigrants. The Mexican-born population in the U.S. has more than quintupled since then. The next largest sending country—China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan)—accounts for just 5% of the nation’s current stock of about 40 million immigrants.

The share of all immigrants who are Mexican born nearly doubled from 1980 (15.6%) to 2010 (30%). At its peak in 2004-2009, the Mexican-born population constituted nearly one-third (32%) of the nation’s foreign-born population.

Over the years, an increasing share of Mexican migrants to the U.S. became permanent residents with year-round jobs in a broader range of sectors than agriculture. Most immigrants from Mexico (51% in 2011) are unauthorized, according to Pew Hispanic estimates based on Current Population Survey data. Mexicans make up the majority of the nation’s unauthorized immigrant population. (See Section 6 of the report for more detail about the characteristics of Mexican-born residents of the U.S.)

Analysts generally agree that the sharp, four-decade rise in Mexican immigration after 1970, especially of unauthorized migrants, was driven by a combination of factors. The U.S. and Mexico had formally agreed in 1942 to establish the “bracero” temporary-worker program, but when it expired in 1964, the demand in the U.S. for low-skilled labor remained strong. Major changes to U.S. immigration law in 1965 favored immigrants who wanted to rejoin their families in the U.S., not those who came to work. Economic troubles and other problems in Mexico also encouraged people to migrate north.11

Although much of the cross-border movement was unauthorized, few of the migrants settled in the U.S. before the 1970s. The tripling of the Mexican-born population between 1970 and 1980 was driven in part by the large-scale settlement of unauthorized immigrants. By 1980, about half of Mexican immigrants living in the United States were unauthorized (Warren and Passel, 1987).

Once the new migration pattern was established, flows to the U.S. waxed and waned in conjunction with changes in U.S. border policy and immigration law, trends in the U.S. economy and conditions in Mexico. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 had several provisions that allowed unauthorized immigrants to acquire legal permanent resident status. About 2 million formerly unauthorized Mexican immigrants became legal U.S. residents by the early 1990s. These new immigrants, along with changes in U.S. immigration law, reinforced the existing migration patterns and spurred continued legal immigration and increasing unauthorized immigration. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. more than doubled, and between 1990 and 2000 the numbers doubled again.

The Mexican-born population continued to grow until 2007. At that point, the combined effects of the failing U.S. economy, increased border enforcement, more expensive and dangerous crossings, violence at the border, and changes with the Mexican population and economy brought this population growth to a halt.

In recent years, there appears to be less short-term seasonal migration between Mexico and the U.S., perhaps because of the increased costs and risks of crossing the border (Pew Hispanic Center, 2011). The new results from the 2010 Mexican census also show a decline in the shortest migration trips. In 2000, answering the question of when they had last left for the U.S., nearly half (49%) of the “recent” migrants to the U.S. had departed in the previous 12 months.12 In 2010, only a quarter of the much-reduced migrant population (27%) had left for the U.S. in the previous 12 months.

Emigration to the U.S.: Mexican Perspective

Mexican emigrants living in the U.S. now represent a substantial share of the Mexican-born population. No other nation in the world has as many of its citizens living abroad as does Mexico, and 97% of them live in the U.S. (Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2012).

In 1970, when Mexico’s population was 48 million, only 1.6% of the combined Mexican population of the two nations lived in the U.S. In 2010, with Mexico’s population at 112.3 million, the Mexican-born population in the U.S. had risen to 10% of the combined totals in both countries. The shares are even higher among those in the prime working ages, 30 to 44 (Pew Hispanic Center, 2011).

  1. The remaining migrants, persons born in countries other than Mexico or the U.S., represent less than 1% of the flow.
  2. In the Mexican census data, there is some overlap between the recent migrants and those in the U.S. five years before the census. In our estimates of five-year flows, the overlapping counts are removed.
  3. Children are defined as persons ages 17 and younger.
  4. These are conservative estimates because the children who are included in this category are only those living in the same household with their parents. In addition, there were another 52,000 children ages 17 and younger in 2010 who could not be linked with a parent living in the same household. Most are probably U.S.-born children of Mexican immigrants to the U.S.
  5. The report (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2012) was ordered by Congress in response to a 2009 estimate by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2009) that more than 100,000 parents of U.S.-born children had been deported during the nine-year period from 1998 to 2007. The inspector general report with that estimate stated that DHS did not consistently track U.S.-citizen children.
  6. In the case of Mexico, citizenship may also be acquired through a parent who is a naturalized Mexican citizen. Mexico started allowing its citizens to hold dual nationality in 1998. Foreign nationals, who had previously lost their Mexican nationality prior to 1998, may regain their Mexican nationality through an administrative process at a Mexican embassy or consulate.
  7. Not all of the recent migrants who returned to Mexico by the time of the census are included in the overall estimate U.S.-Mexico migration shown above. There is some overlap between the recent migrants (i.e., people who reported moving to the U.S. between 2005 and 2010) and people who reported living in the U.S. in 2005. We have removed the overlap—about 100,000 in 2010 and 40,000 in 2000—in the estimates of total flow but not in our discussion of recent migration patterns.
  8. The numbers are augmented and adjusted for omissions, especially of unauthorized immigrants. It should be noted that the American Community Survey (ACS) shows a slightly different pattern, and somewhat lower numbers, for the Mexican-born population. (The ACS estimates have not been adjusted to reflect undercounts but have been reweighted to reflect the impact of the 2010 Census on estimates for earlier years.) According to the ACS, the Mexican-born population did not change from 2009 to 2010 (11.7 million in both years), in contrast to a small decline (from 12.6 million in 2009 to 12.3 million in 2010) shown in the Current Population Survey.
  9. For example, see National Research Council (2011) and Rosenblum and Brick (2011).
  10. This is the group in Figure 2.3 as departing between 1995 and 2000 and still living in the U.S. as of 2000.

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