Mexican Migration Monitor

Mexican Migration Monitor

Publicado el 24 de octubre de 2012
por Roberto Suro y Rene Zenteno en El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, USC’s Tomás Rivera Policy Institute 




The most recent data available show that northbound flows are holding steady with signs of increasing unauthorized migration, while southbound flows are decreasing. The result is that the size of the Mexican-born population in the United States has fully recovered from losses experienced during the recession. Meanwhile, unemployment among those migrants has decreased and labor force participation rates have held steady—a post-recession economic performance slightly better than for U.S. native-born workers. Another sign of recovery comes from an increased flow of remittances to Mexico.

These are the major findings of a new collaborative project between the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute in Los Angeles and El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. The Mexican Migration Monitor, a joint publication that makes its debut with this report, presents key trends in the ongoing and evolving movement of people between Mexico and the United States. As described below, the methodology involves developing a composite picture using multiple sources of publicly available information in combination with previously unpublished data from the Border Survey of Mexican Migrants.

Multiple factors both in the United States and Mexico contribute to shaping the size and characteristics of migration flows, and it is difficult to draw clear simple lines of causality between events and migration trends. However, in recent years dramatic changes in the U.S. economy appear to have exercised a dominant influence. In retrospect, the very high volume of migration experienced in the mid-2000s seems an artifact of an economic bubble. Flows today are at a much lower level, and yet the migratory framework that placed one-tenth of the Mexican population in the United States appears to have weathered the Great Recession and is now in an extended convalescence like the U.S. economy itself. Halfway through 2012, some indicators were positive while others were neutral on the prospects for resumed flows.

Overall, the mechanisms that could produce increased Mexican migration again in response to heightened demand in the U.S. labor market are largely intact despite several years of enforcement efforts designed to stymie them. The size of the Mexican migrant population has not shrunken in the face of more than three years of national U.S. unemployment rates of 8 percent or higher, a record-breaking federal deportation campaign, and the enactment of laws by various state and local governments designed to produce “attrition through enforcement.” Instead, the migration flows may well be passing beyond the much-heralded “net-zero” point at which the numbers of people arriving and leaving balanced each other out in the wake of the recession.
Given the available indicators as of mid-2012, it appears that even a relatively small increase in the demand for Mexican labor in the U.S. economy would prompt a positive response in the migration flows despite intensified enforcement efforts by the federal government, several states, and some local governments.

Unauthorized flows northward showed signs of increasing in the first half of 2012, according to previously unpublished data from the Border Survey of Mexican Migration. Meanwhile, that survey shows that the outbound flow of migrants voluntarily returning to Mexico is decreasing. As a result, the stock of the Mexican-born population in the United States has stabilized at about the same very high level—some 11.7 million people—that it had reached before the recession, according to several indicators studied for this report. The available data for migration trends in 2012 suggest that the size of that population might show a small increase across the entire year unless the U.S. economy flattens or declines in the third and fourth quarters.

However, there is no reason to believe that flows will surge and that population growth will accelerate again as it did during the 1990s, when structural factors in the United States and Mexico generated a new era of massive migration, or as in the mid-2000s, when the housing bubble temporarily inflated demand for Mexican construction workers.

Instead, a distinctive new chapter in the story of Mexican migration to the United States is now being written in the post-recession employment doldrums and amid unprecedented enforcement efforts aimed at immigrant communities. Like the chapters that precede it, this one will emerge from millions of different interactions in communities, workplaces, and public institutions. Chronicling such a story requires many methods exercised by several disciplines and professions across time and in many places.


The purpose of Mexican Migration Monitor is to analyze several different types of data from different sources in the hope of developing a composite picture of migration trends. That picture will be tentative by necessity because the Monitor seeks to publish the most recent reliable data. Such statistics are subject to revision, and their real significance is sometimes apparent only in retrospect.

The Monitor is the work of a cross-border collaboration between two research organizations that have long-standing commitments to the study of Mexican migration. The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute is the oldest U.S. think tank on policy issues related to migration and is now a university research center housed at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF), a government-funded social science research institution whose main campus is in Tijuana, has monitored and assessed Mexican migration flows for more than two decades.

The indicators presented in this report include government statistics on population, employment, remittances, and enforcement actions. Future editions of the Monitor will feature other combinations of such indicators. The core findings are formulated on the basis of previously unpublished data from the Border Survey of Mexican Migration. Operating since 1993, the border survey is the oldest continuous research program tracking original data on the number of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border legally or illegally. The Encuesta sobre Migración en la Frontera Norte de México (EMIF) is conducted at selected border-crossing points and at airports in the interior of Mexico by COLEF with the support of several agencies and ministries of the Mexican federal government. The border survey offers a unique glimpse at the size and characteristics of migration in both directions across the border with data systematically assembled on a quarterly basis.

No government agency attempts to measure the complex variety of movements north and south that comprise Mexican migration flows. Enforcement agencies keep an accounting of their own actions, but these do not measure actual migration. The number of apprehensions along the southwest U.S. border, for example, does not distinguish among individuals who are picked up multiple times. Nor does it account for the people who evade apprehension. Meanwhile, population and employment data collected within the United States offer snapshots of the stock of migrants and their characteristics at any given time but do not attempt to enumerate their comings and goings. The border survey, however, does provide a portrait of Mexicans who are in motion, and a longitudinal analysis of the survey data offers an invaluable moving picture of the migration because COLEF has applied a consistent methodology repeatedly over many years in its observations. When the survey data and the other indicators are put together and are consistent with each other, as is the case with this report, important trends in Mexican migration begin to emerge.


A great many factors can weigh on decisions whether to migrate. These include local and national economic conditions in the two countries and U.S. enforcement efforts both at the border and in communities deep inside the country as well as criminal violence along migration routes. Lagging effects further complicate the picture. A rise in U.S. unemployment, for example, might discourage migration for an extended period of time. And the opposite is also true. Migration flows have appeared at times to operate as leading indicators, showing the earliest effects of change in the U.S. business cycle. Understanding the factors shaping migration flows during any given period thus involves the construction of hypotheses based on multiple, separate, and unrelated observations.

With those caveats in mind, an examination of data from before the Great Recession (officially dated as December 2007 to June 2009) though mid-2012 suggest that economic conditions in the United States have been, and remain, the primary determinants of the size of Mexican migration flows. Meanwhile, federal enforcement efforts have succeeded in reaching into well-settled immigrant communities to remove record numbers of individuals on the basis of their immigration status alone. However, despite evidence of growing psychological effects on the migrants who are removed, the available data suggest that these efforts have failed to have substantial, ongoing effects of the size of the Mexican migrant population.

The overall picture in 2012 is of a new equilibrium emerging out of a period of difficulties. Like every other player in the U.S. economy, Mexican migrants endured a grievous shock during the recession and have yet to fully recover. The recession effects were compounded by a wave of violence aimed at migrants in northern Mexico that increased both the dangers and the costs of moving north. Although the migration flows are now at a much lower level than before the recession, the indicators portray a complex and well-established migration network involving millions of families on both sides of the border that has absorbed multiple setbacks and has steadied itself. Several important indicators depict stability in the size of the population and important activities such as remittance sending since mid-2011 and earlier in some cases.

The sequence of the observable trends since the onset of the recession suggests some important analytical conclusions about the relative effects of enforcement efforts as compared with economic factors. Signs of distress and downturn in migration began in 2006 when the home construction industry began to collapse in the United States, and they were most acute through the recession and its immediate aftermath in 2009. The economic downturn produced immediate and notable effects on the size of the population, measures of its economic well-being, and the volume of migration flows. The available indicators do not suggest that enforcement efforts have produced similar impacts.

In effect we are assessing the effects of two events—the recession and the intensified enforcement campaign—that occurred in different time frames. The heightening of U.S. enforcement efforts primarily followed the recession. Even as a buildup of border controls continued, a new push began in 2008 to seize and remove migrants from the interior of the country. This new strategy has been gaining momentum ever since. In addition, the most notable efforts to use state and local laws to crack down on unauthorized migrants have occurred since 2010. However, during these years of markedly increased enforcement, most notably 2010 to the present, the overall trends, as noted above, have been stability and even moderate growth.

While the recession had a clear and indisputable impact on Mexican migration, the same cannot be said for the current enforcement campaign. As such, the indicators suggest that all other factors being equal, any improvement in the U.S. labor market is likely to be accompanied by an increase in Mexican migration flows.



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