The large stock of Mexican migrants in the United States — accumulating over the course of centuries — has continued to overshadow more recent and more ground-shifting trends of migration within Latin American countries and to new countries of destination.
While trade dominates yearly national statistics, movements of workers across borders are much less official and often go uncounted and unrecognized for years.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, policymakers are noting labor movements inconceivable as little as 10 years ago: Hondurans and Guatemalans crossing to El Salvador for agriculture and construction work; Bolivians and Paraguayans working in large numbers in Argentina; Mexicans from the state of Chiapas moving to the Yucatan for work, with Guatemalans replacing them at even lower wages to harvest Chiapan crops; Ecuadorians and Colombians having moved in large numbers to Spain.
These shifts demonstrate a growing globalization of Latin American labor markets both within and outside the region. Migration to the United States and Europe appears to have slowed in the wake of the recent global financial crisis, and return migration to the region appears limited.
To date, however, policymakers do not detect a slowdown in the smaller but emerging flows of intraregional migration that are coming to characterize regional labor markets, crisis or not.
The data and tracking needed to accurately record these trends is limited in Latin American countries. Much better estimates exist of Latin Americans living and working in countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
This article examines existing trends, including data on flows to destinations outside Latin America and flows within the region. It then looks at of the education levels of the region's migrants, as a proxy for skill levels, and the two broad types of policy responses to these flows.
Data on Migration from Latin America
The large and accumulating stock of Mexican migrants in the United States — 11.4 million in 2008 according to the U.S. Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey — has been amply documented.
In recent years, though, steady and increasing inflows of Mexicans to the United States have leveled off. Numerous reports have found that immigration flows from Mexico dropped from 1 million in 2006 to approximately 600,000 in 2009. This is largely a result of a decrease in unauthorized-migrant flows, which have proven to be sensitive to this and earlier recessions.
Caribbean migrants form the next largest regional bloc, an estimated 3.4 million in 2008.
However, the Central American foreign born (excluding those from Mexico) made up the second-largest group among Latin American immigrants, about 2.8 million in 2008 according to the American Community Survey.
The South American foreign born followed with nearly 2.6 million in 2008. Taken together, the Latin American cohort — even excluding the Caribbean — comprised the single largest group of foreign born in the United States and 5.5 percent of the total U.S. population.
New destination countries in the OECD — in particular Spain and Japan, and to a lesser extent Italy — have seen immigration from Latin America increasing at greater rates than the United States.
Indeed, immigration to Spain from Latin America and the Caribbean has increased nearly eightfold in the last decade, with most of the flows originating in South America (see Table 1). The largest cohort has come from Colombia and Ecuador starting in 2000, a trend related both to political and economic crises in the origin countries and encouragement from Spain via the signing of bilateral migration agreements in 2001.
The agreements between Spain and individual Latin American countries regularized large numbers of unauthorized migrants, established temporary work programs and programs to recruit workers in their countries of origin, included provisions for family reunification, and provided mechanisms for voluntary return. The vast majority of Latin American workers were lower skilled.
Since Ecuadorians did not need visas to travel to Spain as tourists, this facilitated much greater flows, so much so that Spain in 2003 started requiring Ecuadorians to obtain visas.
Migrant stocks from Colombia and Ecuador leveled off from 2005 to 2007 — and even, in the case of Ecuador, appear to have decreased. But growth in stocks from Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, and Paraguay picked up. As with Ecuador, Spain began requiring visas for Bolivians in 2007.
In the wake of the global recession, these flows to Spain in particular have shifted. High unemployment rates motivated the Spanish authorities to create a voluntary incentive program, allowing migrants to receive their accumulated unemployment insurance benefits if they returned home.
Only 8,724 migrants participated in the first year of the program, which began in November 2008, despite even higher unemployment rates among migrants than in the general workforce (in April 2010, 25 percent among Colombians with work visas, for example). Observers argue that the condition of renouncing the right to return to Spain is the biggest factor keeping migrants from signing up for benefits (see the Migration Information Source article on pay-to-go programs).
As of April 2010, however, Spain's National Institute of Statistics (INE) reported that many Latin American nationals did return home in 2009, most of them independently of the unemployment insurance program, including 27,000 Ecuadorians, 20,000 Bolivians, and 12,000 Argentineans. In contrast, the number of Dominicans and Paraguayans in Spain actually increased 2.4 percent and 4 percent, respectively, over the course of 2009.
Latin American migration to Japan, which increased as well during the last decade, has dynamics linked more to Japanese ancestry. In 1990, Japan established mechanisms for foreigners of Japanese descent (known as "nikkeijin") and their families to live and work in Japan.
With these incentives, migration from Brazil and Peru increased sharply, with many of these migrants working in low-skilled jobs. During the recent economic crisis, unemployment rates of Latin American immigrants, who number an estimated 350,000, reached 40 percent. Japan enacted its own "pay-to-go" program that had attracted over 13,000 applications, most from Brazil, by late 2009.
Canada is also an important destination for Latin American and especially Caribbean migrants. The largest group from the region overall are the Jamaican born (123,000 in 2006), 68 percent of whom entered before 1991.
While their populations are less than half the size of the Jamaican born, one-third of Mexican immigrants and nearly two-thirds of Colombians entered Canada between 2001 and2006, and both populations appear to be growing.
Data on Migration within Latin America
Intraregional migration appears to have increased in a similar time frame as migration to Spain and Japan, but official statistics are thought to highly underestimate the flows, which may range from 13 to 30 percent of all migration originating in the region. As with migration out of the region, intraregional migration appears to follow global trends in which an increasing proportion of migrants are female.
In 1970, three out of four immigrants in Latin America came from outside the region, largely from Europe. By 2000, intraregional migrants (officially recorded) had become the majority, accounting for more than 60 percent of flows to most individual countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to geographer Jorge Martínez Pizarro.
Mexico and Brazil were two notable exceptions. According to Mexico's 2000 census, immigrants accounted for just 0.5 percent of the country's population, with nearly 70 percent of them born in the United States. Immigrants from elsewhere in Latin America accounted for another 17 percent of the total, the largest group hailing from Guatemala; another 10 percent of immigrants were European, the majority Spanish.
Mexico is also host to a large number of unauthorized migrants from Central America, whom the census may not capture, particularly the large number of migrants who cross daily, weekly, and seasonally in addition to many migrants in transit (known as transmigrants) from the region and increasingly from Africa and Asia. Transmigrants use Mexico to get to the United States or Canada.
Brazil hosts a slightly larger percentage of intraregional migrants. According to the country's 2000 census, 56 percent of the foreign born were from Europe, 21 percent from Central or South America; and 18 percent from Asia. The top countries of origin were Portugal (31 percent of the total), Japan (10 percent), Italy (8 percent), Paraguay (4 percent), and Argentina (4 percent).
However, immigrants, including high-skilled temporary workers, are increasingly coming from within the region and from new source countries, such as the United States and China. In 2000, 47 percent of officially recorded recent immigrants to Brazil — defined as those who entered from 1990 to 2000 — came from elsewhere in Latin America: 12 percent from Paraguay, 9 percent from Argentina, and 7 percent from Bolivia. Only 23 percent came from Europe (5 percent from Portugal); while 16 percent were from Asia (6 percent from Japan).
Data from national censuses show that from 1990 to 2000, the accumulating stock of immigrants from within the region grew faster than the number from outside Latin America; among the growth countries were Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, and Venezuela (see Table 2).
The relative change in stocks was due principally to a drop-off in OECD immigration to the region. Major corridors within Latin America, some established for many decades, include Guatemala to Mexico, Haiti to the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua to Costa Rica, Bolivia and Paraguay to Argentina, Colombia to Venezuela, and Colombia to Ecuador. Emerging corridors include Peru to Chile, and Honduras and Guatemala to El Salvador.
Intraregional migrants in Latin America now exceed 3.5 million, according to the University of Sussex's Global Migrant Origin Database, which is constructed from data from the 2000-2001 round of censuses. The top five originating countries were Colombia (713,000 individuals, or 43 percent of emigrants), Paraguay (362,000, 10 percent), Bolivia (275,000, 8 percent), Chile (271,000, 8 percent), and Nicaragua (256,000, 7 percent).
The destination countries with the highest numbers of intraregional migrants during that time period were Argentina (1,043,000), Venezuela (762,000), Costa Rica (280,000), Paraguay (156,000), and Chile (134,000). Altogether, roughly two-thirds of all intraregional migrants in Latin America resided in one of these five countries in 2000, with fully-one half living in either Argentina or Venezuela. Undercounting of unauthorized migrants is likely to be particularly high in places like Venezuela.
By qualitative indications from government sources, it is believed that intraregional migration has increased dramatically over the last 10 years. The 2010 round of censuses will be useful in updating the bilateral migration data and confirming general tendencies, but more precise figures will likely remain elusive as a majority of statistical agencies in the region lack the capacity, resources, and instruments to accurately measure migrant stocks and flows.
Latin American Destinations: Different Contexts
Intraregional migration, highly heterogeneous, is driven principally by the search for work, both permanent and seasonal. Flows motivated by political strife still characterize outmigration from Colombia to Venezuela and Ecuador. But in contrast to the 1980s, when civil wars in Central America caused mass migration to destinations within and outside the region, refugee flows have become uncommon.
In some sectors, such as agriculture, circular migration is the norm, while in others, such as domestic service, flows are more permanent. Tourism and construction, the emerging sectors for intraregional migration, display both temporary and permanent migration features. Here we describe some of the distinct subregional flows in Latin America.
In Central America, intraregional migration has a highly seasonal character. Nicaraguans go to Costa Rica for the harvesting of melons, coffee, and other crops. Researchers including sociologists Catherine Marquette and Eduardo Baumeister have estimated that at peak harvest times, there may be as many as 100,000 seasonal migrants from Nicaragua in the country.
However, these flows over the past decades have translated into a core permanent population of perhaps 300,000. These Nicaraguans have become increasingly urbanized and feminized over the last three decades. Overall, half of the Nicaraguan-born population is female, and a greater proportion of female Nicaraguans live in the capital, presumably for domestic work.
According to Costa Rica's 2007 national household survey, 34 percent of Nicaraguan-born women worked as domestic servants, and another 20 percent in hotels and restaurants. Agriculture is dominated more by male labor: 35 percent of Nicaraguan men worked in agriculture, compared to 15 percent of women.
Although Costa Rica continues to be an important destination for Nicaraguan migrants, large inflows appear to have peaked in the 1990s, when Nicaragua experienced relatively negative macroeconomic conditions. Today the figures indicate continued seasonal flows, with a core population that stabilized around 2005.
Argentina and Chile
In South America, where subregional migration patterns vary with the distinct levels of development, countries such as Argentina and Chile — which are more developed, offer more job opportunities, and have higher wages than their neighbors — tend to draw migrants from bordering and nearby countries (Bolivia, Paraguay, and Peru).
According to Argentina's 2001 census, a majority of the country's stock of 1.5 million immigrants was born in a neighboring country, predominantly Bolivia and Paraguay. Female migrants are heavily concentrated in domestic service, while male migrants tend to work in construction.
Over the past eight years, as national policies have opened up the country further to legal immigration, inflows appear to have increased dramatically. Figures from the country's national migration institute and the consulates of Bolivia, Paraguay, and Peru estimate that in 2009, approximately one in 10 residents of Argentina was born in one of those three countries.
In Chile, a majority of immigrants are from neighboring South American countries, predominantly Argentina (48,000) and Peru (38,000) according to the country's 2002 census. The census indicated as well that Peruvians were highly concentrated in domestic service — 72 percent of Peruvian women worked in this sector. Argentines, with higher education levels, had more diversified occupations; 22 percent worked in wholesale and retail trade.
Peruvian women employed as domestic workers in Chile tended to be younger and had a much higher level of education than Chilean-born female domestic workers: 74 percent of them had more than 10 years of schooling, compared to 33 percent of Chilean women in the same occupation.
Venezuela has become the principal destination for Colombians migrating to escape their nation's violence and for economic opportunities; it hosts the largest Colombian migrant population in the region.
In 2000, the country was home to an estimated 608,000 Colombians, many of whom arrived in the 1970s, drawn by the oil boom. However, the Colombian national statistical office places the numbers much higher, at more than twice the official Venezuelan count. Male Colombian workers in Venezuela are concentrated in agriculture and retail and wholesale trade, whereas women tend to be concentrated in domestic service and trade.
There are also more than 30,000 Cubans in Venezuela providing technical assistance in the health, sports, tourism, transportation, and sugar industries, under a 2000 agreement between the two countries.
Intraregional migrants include "trans-border migrants," meaning those who commute back and forth across borders either on a daily, periodic, or seasonal basis.
The U.S.-Mexico border is perhaps the most well known, but many more diverse cross-border labor patterns mark the region. The historic cohort of transborder migrants are often indigenous peoples or Afro-descendents, such as indigenous Guatemalans crossing the Mexican border, Colombian indigenous groups crossing to Panama for the harvest season, and Haitians going to the Dominican Republic.
The triborder region of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina has proved the most problematic internally in the region to manage. This is principally due to the lack of effective government control by Paraguay along a very difficult to monitor border. The situation has given rise to a vibrant contraband industry with profits on all borders.
Education and Skill Levels of Latin American Migrants
Given the costs, distance, difficulty of gaining legal entry, and danger of migrating illegally to destinations like the United States, most of those who migrate within Latin America, with exceptions, appear to be poorer and less educated on average than those migrating to OECD countries. This is on a relative scale, as on average, Latin American — and predominantly Mexican — migrants to the United States are less well educated than other international migrants.
The 2008 American Community Survey found that nearly 60 percent of adults 25 years or older born in Mexico or Central America living in the United States had less than a high school education, compared to 33 percent among all foreign born and 12 percent for native-born U.S. citizens.
Even for those with university or professional training, Latin American immigrants to the United States are proportionately less likely than the native born to be working in jobs at their education level.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean reports that in the United States, 64 percent of native-born citizens with bachelor's degrees were employed at levels equivalent to their education in 2005. This was true for only 40 percent of Central American immigrants and 35 percent of Mexican immigrants; college graduates born in the Caribbean or South America fared slightly better (45 percent).
A Migration Policy Institute report, Uneven Progress: The Employment Pathways of Skilled Immigrants in the United States analyzed 2005-2006 American Community Survey data and came to a similar conclusion. For Latin Americans in the United States who had been educated in their countries of origin, 44 percent of recent immigrants and 35 percent of long-term immigrants were employed in unskilled occupations. In contrast, just 18 percent of native-born college-educated U.S. citizens were in unskilled occupations.
Systematically capturing data on intraregional migrants' education levels is more difficult, but some recent national surveys confirm the proportionally low education and skill levels of intraregional migrants.
Costa Rica's 2007 national household survey found that 30 percent of Nicaraguans in the country had less than a primary-school education and an additional 13 percent had no education. Adding these populations to the 45 percent who have completed primary school but not high school reveals that more than 88 percent of Nicaraguans in Costa Rica had less than a high school education, making them far less educated than the Mexican and Central American populations in the United States.
The picture is similar for Haitian migrants. Traditionally, Haitian elites, professionals, and intellectuals have emigrated to France or Canada. In addition, according to the 2008 ACS, approximately 535,000 Haitians resided in the United States, 45 percent of whom had at least some college education.
The vast majority of lower-skilled Haitian migrants are in the Dominican Republic, where they have been traditionally employed on sugar plantations but are increasingly working in construction and tourism.
According to a 2002 International Organization of Migration (IOM) survey of Haitians in the Dominican Republic, 70 percent could not read or write Spanish, and 42 percent could not read or write Creole. About 42 percent had not been to school, a figure that was significantly higher among women (51 percent) than men (39 percent). Of those who had been to school, 56 percent had an eighth-grade education or less, and 85 percent reported that their work did not relate to the education they'd received.
Concerns about losing higher-skilled labor to developed countries, commonly known as "brain drain," receives much attention from national governments in the region. However, key studies by economists Çaǧlar Özden, Frédéric Docquier, and Abdeslam Marfouk on the "brain drain" using data from the 1990 and 2000 rounds of censuses show that the region is highly heterogeneous in this regard. Overall, Latin America has smaller outflows of those with bachelor's degrees than other developing regions, though the Caribbean and Central America have higher rates of skilled emigration.
For policymakers within Latin America and the Caribbean, however, the lower skill profile of intraregional migrants raises important concerns about whether these migrants and their children have access to education, health, training, and other services to increase human capital. Without legal and rights protections, migrants' short-term income gains might convert over time to chronic poverty and exclusion, holding back development throughout the region.
Latin America: Two Differing Approaches to Immigration Policy
Broadly speaking, there is no one regional policy approach in Latin America and the Caribbean: regional migrants face very different national environments regarding free labor movement and labor rights.
The Caribbean is widely moving toward free internal movement, and countries within the Southern Cone are lessening restrictions for migrants from nations belonging to Mercosur, which started as a free-trade zone. The region, as a whole, however, does not resemble the more uniformly free movement of labor that characterizes the European Union, which allows citizens of one EU state to live and work in other EU countries on similar conditions.
Rather, what we can observe are subregions in different stages of progress toward more regionalized labor markets, particularly in terms of protections for regional migrants and access to services. Here we examine two subregions with different contexts for legal movement of migrant labor.
In this part of the Americas, much intraregional migration is irregular, in the strict sense that many workers do not have legal permission to work for more than short periods. Bilateral agreements govern visas for specific groups of workers: Guatemalans under a special agreement within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the border with Mexico; employer-based visas for Nicaraguans to work in Costa Rica.
In both Mexico and Costa Rica, the numbers of workers entering exceed these bilateral agreements. A survey of Guatemalan migrants returning to their country from Mexico showed that in 2006, 29 percent did not have legal documents to enter Mexico; this proportion had increased from 21 percent during a survey period in 2004.
Border control is relatively difficult in the region, with so much temporary, family, and commercial travel. Mexico's enforcement is targeted more to preventing migration from flowing into the interior of the country and into the United States, with comparatively lax enforcement of its southern border.
Between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, most Nicaraguans cross legally, either through an explicit work visa or on a 30-day visitor visa. Many cross back on a regular basis to get new 30-day visas; others overstay the visa period, as is common in the United States.
While rights to services are not explicitly protected, Nicaraguans do gain access to Costa Rican hospitals on an emergency basis, and Nicaraguan children are allowed to enroll in schools.
Compared to the rest of the Latin American region, Mercosur countries have made considerably greater advances in providing citizens of Member States with the legal right to work and access to services. Mercosur began as a free-trade zone in 1991 with full members Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay; Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru are associate members, while Venezuela's full membership is pending ratification.
Although the Mercosur members have signed a region-wide accord to provide equal treatment and access in terms of residency, countries are in different stages of amending their national laws to align with the agreement. Specific national governments, in particular Brazil and Argentina, have advanced in granting citizens of other Mercosur countries legal permission to work or easier access.
Argentina, which receives predominantly Bolivian and Paraguayan migrants, permits nationals of Mercosur countries to obtain Argentine temporary national identity cards and national identity documents a year thereafter. With an Argentine national identity card, Bolivians and Paraguayans have equal access to health, employment and education services, and judicial protections.
In 2006, Argentina began a regularization program for Mercosur citizens called "Patria Grande." As of June 2009, 1 million people had signed up for the program.
Some Argentine localities permit Mercosur legal residents to vote at the municipal level, prompting those cities to respond better to the needs of migrant residents.
Under Brazil's temporary residency program, implemented in October 2009, citizens of Mercosur countries plus Bolivia and Chile gain from a simplified application process that they can complete once in Brazil. If accepted, they and their legal dependents of any nationality receive two-year temporary residency status and are eligible to work for any employer in Brazil. After two years, they are eligible for permanent residency.
In early 2010, two major earthquakes hit the region, first Haiti and then Chile. The catastrophic January 12 earthquake in Haiti killed approximately 230,000 people, but its impact on migration flows is still unclear.
IOM estimates that after the earthquake, tens of thousands of Haitians — including 20,000 injured people and their family members — crossed into the Dominican Republic, seeking medical attention; some have returned home, but many others presumably have not. Hundreds of unauthorized Haitians have also arrived by boat in Jamaica and the Bahamas, and officials signal these numbers may rise once the hurricane season begins and settlements in Haiti are flooded.
In reaction to the earthquake, the U.S. government halted the deportation of 30,000 Haitians and offered temporary protected status for 18 months to Haitians who were in the United States when the quake struck; more than 48,000 had applied by early May according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The United States, however, has not agreed to take in new migrants fleeing the devastation. The U.S. Coast Guard reports that it has not seen a noticeable change in migration trends to date; as of the end of April 2010, the service had intercepted 444 migrants at sea, a number that is not significantly above historical levels.
The Chilean quake of February 27 had a greater impact on infrastructure and economic production than on lives. According to press reports and national migration agencies, small numbers of affected Ecuadorian and Peruvian migrants have returned home, but to date, there has not been an appreciable impact on migration patterns in Chile.
In fits and starts, Latin American and Caribbean institutions are adapting to new trends in intraregional migration and destination countries. The Caribbean region is clearly the more advanced in free movement of labor, with the higher-income countries of the Southern Cone making important progress. The establishment of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which aims to integrate Mercosur and the Andean Community, demonstrates new promise for a wider scope of regional approaches.
In the near future, however, workers crossing borders more frequently, particularly for work in agriculture, construction, tourism, and domestic service, will continue to be the driving force compelling national governments to the table to negotiate more orderly flows and worker protections. Within the next decade, one is likely to see more defined regional blocs permitting much freer labor movement.
The prospects for policy change outside of the region, however, appear more limited although they potentially affect greater numbers. Policy change is less likely throughout the OECD with economic recession and cuts in national services.
The prospect of comprehensive immigration reform in the United States remains somewhat distant, but reform could affect conditions for those who have already migrated and unskilled flows, particularly if it were to include provisions to regularize those currently living in the United States and permit legal inflows of unskilled laborers.
While the large stocks of migrants already in the United States, Spain, and Japan will continue to dominate headlines and statistics in the developed countries, intraregional labor flows are reshaping how key sectors in Latin America and the Caribbean now operate and how policy is compelled to change on the other side of the fence.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Inter-American Development Bank. Eleanor Sohnen can be reached at eleanors [at] iadb [dot] org.
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