E.g., 06/18/2024
E.g., 06/18/2024
Mexico at a Crossroads Once More: Emigration Levels Off as Transit Migration and Immigration Rise

Mexico at a Crossroads Once More: Emigration Levels Off as Transit Migration and Immigration Rise

Dancers at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

Dancers at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. (Photo: Laura Elizabeth Pohl for Bread for the World)

Long the origin of millions of immigrants in the United States, Mexico has in recent years begun to confront a new reality as large numbers of migrants from elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere have sought to transit through the country—and, in some cases, stay for good. As the size of the Mexican-born population in the United States has stalled and then fallen by more than 1 million since the 2007-08 economic crisis, the Mexican government has sought to manage diaspora relations while balancing enforcement of irregular immigration with respect for migrants’ rights.

Mexico remains the origin of the world’s second-largest migrant population, and virtually all Mexicans abroad have gone to just one destination: the United States. The 97 percent of Mexican emigrants in El Norte as of mid-2020 are the latest in a nearly century-long history of movement that has fundamentally reshaped both countries, created enormous economic benefits, and at times tensions between national leaders. The tens of billions of U.S. dollars that Mexican emigrants and other members of the diaspora send back are similarly the second largest remittance stream globally. Although the Mexican immigrant population in the United States has declined over the last 15 years due to factors including the global economic crisis, the increasing appeal of the Mexican economy, and heightened U.S. border controls, migration to the United States is still a fact of life for millions of Mexicans.

In recent years, the millions of asylum seekers and others from elsewhere in the Americas and, indeed, across the world have posed a new and difficult challenge for the Mexican government. Most migrants are likely heading to the United States, putting Mexican leaders in a difficult position balancing humanitarian priorities, logistical and humanitarian challenges of transit migrants, and political pressure from U.S. officials eager to prevent irregular migrants from reaching the U.S. border. The Mexico-U.S. migration corridor is far and away the world’s largest, and as an increasing number of migrants come from someplace other than Mexico, leaders have had little time to respond.

This country profile offers an overview of migration trends and policies in Mexico. It provides brief historical background to put recent events into perspective, summarizes developments of the last decade as the country has unmistakably pivoted its policymaking towards managing transit migration, provides an overview of recent policies and measures that have dealt with these flows, and looks forward.

Historical Mexico-U.S. Migration

Large-scale Mexican migration to the United States is an 80-year-old phenomenon, starting in the early 1940s with the farm-labor Bracero program. Over the program’s lifespan from 1942 to 1964, an estimated 4.5 million Mexicans came to work to the United States, peaking at almost 450,000 per year in the late 1950s. After the program ended, the networks of family, friends, and employers remained, laying the foundations for decades of migration to the United States. Combined with a smaller wave starting in the late 19th century, this history made Mexico into a country of emigration.

Migration patterns have evolved in the decades since. Economic factors have remained the predominant drivers, although over time family and social networks have gradually changed the reasons for migrating. What started as seasonal and circular movement of workers became more prolonged and permanent amid rising U.S. border enforcement beginning in earnest in the 1990s, and has come to also include families. Laborers once came primarily from Northern Mexico and moved to the Southwestern United States, but the dynamics have since become national in both countries.

The number of Mexicans residing permanently in the United States—large shares of them without legal status—increased steadily throughout the 20th century, from fewer than 250,000 arriving per year in the 1980s to well above 300,000 in the 1990s and approximately 500,000 annually in the early 2000s. The size of the U.S. Mexican immigrant population overall doubled from 2.2 million in 1980 to 4.3 million in 1990 and then grew to 9.2 million in 2000, at which point Mexicans made up nearly 30 percent of all U.S. immigrants. According to calculations by the Pew Research Center, the Mexican immigrant population hit a high-water mark of more than 12 million in 2007, just before the onset of the economic recession.

That would be the peak. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated the Mexican-born population resident in the United States to be 11.7 million in 2010—representing about one-tenth of all people born in Mexico—and the population has declined since then. Approximately 10.7 million Mexican immigrants lived in the United States as of 2022, the most recent year for which Census Bureau data are available (see Figure 1). This situation was the result of more Mexicans returning to their origin country—many of them bringing along their U.S.-born children—and fewer departing after the U.S. housing bubble burst in 2007 (significantly impacting the construction sector) and the resulting Great Recession, as well as moderately increasing living standards and job opportunities in Mexico and heightened immigration enforcement at the U.S. border and throughout the U.S. interior.

Figure 1. Mexican Immigrant Population in the United States, 1940-2022

Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI), Migration Data Hub, “Mexican-Born Population Over Time, 1850-Present,” accessed April 12, 2024, available online.

Mexican-U.S. migration has always taken both authorized and unauthorized forms, and by the early 2000s the presence of a significant number of Mexicans in unauthorized status had become a source of tension between the two countries. In early 2001, Mexican President Vicente Fox and U.S. President George W. Bush discussed regularizing Mexicans in the United States, establishing a guest-worker program, enhancing border enforcement, and increasing the number of visas available for Mexicans. However, prospects for the far-reaching agreement disappeared after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which transformed the U.S. government’s approach to immigration control and prompted increasing enforcement. In subsequent years, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were deported annually as result of enforcement policies that ramped up especially during the 2008-09 recession (see Figure 2). There have also been sizeable numbers of Mexicans who voluntarily returned to Mexico, often to retire, a pattern that many U.S. nationals of Mexican heritage have also followed.

Figure 2. U.S. Removals of Mexican Immigrants, by Year, FY 1993-2022

Notes: Figure displays data for removals of Mexican migrants from the United States; it does not include returns of Mexicans encountered at the U.S. border, which do not require a court order and which are sometimes included in the generic category of “deportations.”
Sources: Data for fiscal years (FY) 1993-2000 are from Table 65 of Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2001 (Washington, DC: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, 2001), available online; FY 2001-08 data, Table 38 of DHS, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2010 (Washington, DC: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, 2010), available online; FY 2009-12 data, Table 41 of DHS, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2014 (Washington, DC: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, 2015), available online; FY 2013-22 data, Table 42 of DHS, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2022 (Washington, DC: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, 2023), available online.

Since the Bracero era, the Mexican government has sought to defend the rights of its emigrants regardless of their legal status. Mexican leaders have accepted emigration as a fact of life, given the economic, social, and other forces at play. The Mexican economy has also benefitted from the huge amounts of remittances sent back by the Mexican diaspora in the United States and elsewhere, which added up to U.S. $63.3 billion in 2023, according to Banco de México, more than any other country aside from India (discussed in further detail below).

Recent Ups and Downs in Emigration

After several years of net migration near zero, when outflows were roughly matched by returns, the number of Mexican emigrants has rebounded and once again is outpacing returns, although, significantly, general population growth has blunted the impact of these departures on Mexico’s population. In 2015, 290,000 Mexicans left the country, according to the Mexican government. The population in general that year was growing at a rate of nearly 1.3 percent, a turnaround from just from a couple decades earlier when it was shrinking by about 0.5 percent per year.

Approximately 11.2 million Mexicans lived outside their country of birth in mid-2020, according to UN data, the vast majority in the United States. In 2021, 128,000 Mexicans moved to other countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 83 percent to the United States, 5 percent to Spain, and 4 percent to Canada. From 2013 to 2022, between 100,000 and 175,000 Mexicans became lawful permanent residents (LPRs, also known as green-card holders) in the United States each year. More migrants travel through legal channels and have higher levels of education and professional skills, including many international students who do not return to Mexico at the end of their studies.

At the same time, the number of temporary workers has been increasing, with approximately a doubling of U.S. H-2A visas for temporary agricultural workers since 2010 and smaller increases in H-2B visas for seasonal nonagricultural workers. Additionally, around 25,000 temporary agricultural workers go yearly to Canada through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program,

Still, Mexicans accounted for approximately 46 percent of the estimated 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States as of 2021, according to estimates by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). From fiscal year (FY) 2016 to FY 2020, around 314,000 unauthorized Mexicans were apprehended yearly. Numbers have surged since the COVID-19 pandemic. In FY 2021, there were nearly 696,000 Mexican expulsions and apprehensions; in FY 2022 there were nearly 837,000; and in FY 2023 close to 736,000. Of the nearly 2.5 million encounters of unauthorized migrants by the U.S. government in FY 2023, 29 percent were of Mexicans, more than twice as many as any other nationality.

After a surge over the last two decades, forced returns have recently leveled out, particularly since the outbreak of COVID-19. Approximately 211,000 Mexicans were deported from the United States in 2023, according to the National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración, or INM).

Emigration’s drivers are various and diversified, including economic, demographic, and political factors in Mexico as well as family and social ties in the United States. After the end of the Trump administration, the comparatively welcoming tone of the Biden administration has also been encouraging migration to the United States. Recently, insecurity has also accelerated some migrants’ exit; an increasing number of Mexicans have left Mexico to seek asylum, primarily in the United States and Canada. Asylum petitions in U.S. immigration court by Mexicans increased from fewer than 3,000 per year during the FY 2004-09 period to a high of nearly 31,000 in FY 2019, and petitions in Canada surged from 260 in 2016 (also including concessions or admissions as refugees) to nearly 24,000 in 2023. In response, Canada reinstated visa requirements for Mexicans in February 2024.

Returnees and Impact of Remittances

The return of Mexicans to their origin country of their own volition, which happen relatively often given the closeness of the two countries, is often driven by family reunification, increasing economic opportunities in Mexico, and access to social assistance. Insecurity and violence, however, are likely forestalling some people from returning.

The Mexican government has sought to foster ties with emigrants and the U.S.-born diaspora, who can shape economic and political issues in the homeland. Approximately 38.8 million U.S. residents (approximately 12 percent of the U.S. population) were either born in Mexico or reported Mexican ancestry as of 2022, according to MPI estimates. In 2003, pre-existing government initiatives were merged to create the Institute of Mexicans Abroad (Instituto de los Mexicanos en el Exterior, or IME). IME has a mandate to engage with the diaspora, work with emigrants’ hometown associations, and improve individuals' living conditions abroad.

Mounting remittances are also a factor. The 2007 total of U.S. $26.7 billion in remittances amid probably the highest point of emigration to the United States and just before the Great Recession was followed by a decline and not reached again until 2016, when migrants and others sent back $27.6 billion. The rise since 2020 has been spectacular (see Figure 3). This rapid growth in remittances could reflect increasing Mexican emigration and difficult economic conditions for many in Mexico around the time of the pandemic and its related economic shocks.

Figure 3. Remittances Sent to Mexico via Formal Channels, 1995-2023

Source: Banco de México, “Balance of Payments, (CA11) - Workers´ Remittances,” accessed April 12, 2024, available online.

Remittances are a major source of foreign income. Since 1986, the government has tried to encourage a more development-oriented and productive use of remittances. This includes the Three-for-One Program (Programa 3x1 para migrantes), which matches every dollar a migrant contributes to hometown infrastructure and social projects with one each from federal, state, and municipal governments. However, over the years, this development emphasis has faded, and this program was extinguished during the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose six-year term began in 2018.

Transit Migration: Rapidly Rising and Expanding in Origins

Mexico’s transition to a country of transit over the last 20 years, combined with the flattening of emigration, is perhaps the defining recent migration feature. Historically, Guatemalan workers migrated seasonally to Southern Mexico, in what had been seen as a mostly regional and localized issue with no national implications. However, growing political and economic crises in Central America through the late 20th century meant many displaced people transited into and then through Mexico to seek asylum or look for jobs in the United States. Levels rose through the 1990s and into the 2000s, with notable numbers coming from the northern Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Recently, these migrants have been joined by those from South American and Caribbean countries, as well as from countries farther afield, making movements through Mexico to the U.S. border the world’s busiest migration corridor. This migration is often hazardous and migrants often become victims of crime and other abuses.

The government has reshaped its migration policies in response, and as these rising numbers have coincided with growing U.S. concern over border security. In 2005, Mexico advanced the initiative of a “shared responsibility,” taking into consideration U.S. migration and security concerns, and promising to do its part. Later, partially as a response to U.S. pressure, Mexican authorities implemented new detention procedures and expedited the removal of foreign nationals in irregular status. After the Great Recession, tensions again increased when U.S. authorities stepped up deportations to Mexico and amid rising numbers of unauthorized U.S. border crossings. A new legal framework in 2011, comprised mainly of two laws—the Migration Law (Ley de migración) and the Law on Refugees, Complementary Protection, and Political Asylum (Ley sobre refugiados, proteccion complementaria y asilo politico)— is unambiguous in defending rights of all migrants irrespective of legal status. The two laws aim to facilitate international mobility and promote immigrants´ integration and rights, in part by conforming Mexican law to international human-rights treaties. However, the framework is rather procedural and does not specify objectives other than protecting migrants’ rights.

Numbers of transit migrants have picked up dramatically since the mid- 2010s. According to UN data, in 2022, around 450,000 people moved through the country irregularly, of whom 97,000 (22 percent) were Venezuelans, 73,000 (16 percent) Hondurans, and 69,500 (15 percent) Guatemalans. Cubans, Nicaraguans, Colombians, and Ecuadorians were also present in sizeable numbers. Since 2018, some migrants have begun traveling in caravans to protect themselves and pressure authorities along their route. These caravans usually form in Central America—primarily Honduras—but more recently they have been created in Mexico and further south, in Colombia, to cross the Darien Gap.

As a result of this increased movement, the number of migrant detentions (aseguramientos) in Mexico has dramatically increased, from fewer than 100,000 in 2015 to close to 200,000 in 2019, 300,000 in 2021 and almost 700,000 in 2023. In addition to Central Americans, nationals of Venezuela, Ecuador, and other South American countries have increasingly been intercepted. In the first seven months of 2023, the number of South American migrants detained outnumbered those from Central America, 141,000 compared to 102,000. Deportations follow detentions, usually with some delay; between 2019 and 2023, Mexico is estimated to have deported roughly 500,000 people.

Transit migration through Mexico is also reflected by rising U.S. Border Patrol encounters of non-Mexican migrants at the U.S. border. Remaining below 100,000 each year before FY 2013, numbers jumped to 685,000 in FY 2019 and nearly 1.5 million in FY 2023 (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. U.S. Border Patrol Encounters of Unauthorized Migrants at the U.S.-Mexico Border, by Nationality, FY 2007-23

Sources: Data for FY 2007-20 are from Migration Policy Institute (MPI) calculations based on U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), “U.S. Border Patrol Nationwide Apprehensions by Citizenship and Sector (FY 2007 - FY 2020),” accessed April 12, 2024, available online; data for FY 2021-23 are from CBP, “Nationwide Encounters,” updated March 22, 2024, available online.

In FY 2015, Mexicans accounted for 56 percent of Border Patrol encounters of unauthorized migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. Aside from FY 2020, when the pandemic interrupted movement worldwide, they have never since accounted for more than half of overall Border Patrol encounters. Recently, many unauthorized border crossers have come from a growing array of countries including Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, as the heterogeneity of these flows has been expanding gradually.

Many migrants passing through Mexico first transit the Darien Gap, a remote forest between Colombia and Panama. The number of crossings has jumped from a few thousand in the mid-2010s to more than 520,000 in 2023. Many come from Venezuela, Ecuador, and Haiti, as well as other countries in South America and the Caribbean and some in Asia and Africa.

Asylum on the Rise

Although most are able to reach the U.S. border, many migrants remain in Mexico and regularize their legal status, often because of the increasing difficulty of reaching the United States. Some find jobs in Mexico, particularly in the Southeast. Asylum applications have increased. Only 262 asylum seekers were granted protection in 2011 (it is unclear how many requested asylum), compared to 22,750 granted protection as refugees in 2022, when 119,000 applicants were filed. The increase began to be noticeable in 2013, when there were nearly 1,300 applications; it increased to 70,300 in 2019 and then (after a pandemic-related decline in 2020) to 130,000 in 2021. Recent applicants have come from more than 110 countries. The largest number of the 119,000 applicants in 2022 came from Honduras (31,100), Cuba (18,100), and Haiti (17,200).

To cope with the rising numbers of individuals seeking protection, the Mexican Commission to Help Refugees (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados, or COMAR), with only three offices, has been pressured to expeditiously process them. Its budget has slightly increased and it works quite closely and is supported by the Mexican office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Immigration: Spillover Effects

The approximately 1.2 million immigrants in Mexico as of 2020 comprised slightly less than 1 percent of the total population. Two-thirds were from the United States, including as many as 500,000 U.S.-born children of Mexican nationals who returned to their parents' origin country. Other notable populations were from neighboring Guatemala (5 percent) and Spain (2 percent).

The number of new permanent residents has fluctuated in recent years, from 114,000 in 2011 to 341,000 in 2022, according to the government’s Migration Policy Unit (Unidad de Política Migratoria). The largest share tends to arrive through family relations, but significant numbers enter on humanitarian grounds and, to a lesser degree, for employment. In 2021, Hondurans, Venezuelans, and Americans were the three largest nationalities. Also that year, around 4,600 permits were issued to tertiary-level international students and 23,000 to seasonal labor migrants.

As such, immigration is largely a spillover of deportations and return migration from the United States, as well as asylum seekers and other transiting migrants who remain in the country after initially planning to reach the United States. 

Changing Policies and Actions

For the Mexican government, emigration is taken as a matter of fact. There are no attempts to curtail or encourage it, just assist migrants abroad and provide consular services. Mexico has more than 50 consulates across the United States, including in virtually all major cities and in several small border towns. Recent efforts have sought to engage the diaspora and harness remittances (as described above).

Under U.S. Pressure, a Crackdown on Transit Migration

Over the last decade, the more notable pivot has been the government’s changes in posture regarding transit migration. During the Enrique Peña Nieto administration (2012-18), the government reacted to increases of Central American migrants and in particular unaccompanied minors by intensively controlling Mexico´s southern border. The Southern Border Program (Programa Frontera Sur) launched in 2014; in 2018 it was complemented with the You Are at Home Program (Estás en tu casa) to provide temporary employment in Southeastern Mexico to irregular Central American immigrants. These programs were covered under the Merida Initiative, a Mexico-U.S. initiative crafted by President Felipe Calderón in 2007 to foster security cooperation.

After his inauguration in December 2018, López Obrador emphasized prioritizing human rights and development in migrants’ countries of origin, in line with longstanding government positions. Initially, the government liberalized transit conditions and declared free mobility to be a right. In the administration’s first months, numbers of temporary visas (Tarjeta Visitante Temporal) issued on humanitarian grounds increased noticeably, and a sizable number of salvoconductos (permits for passage through Mexico) were also handed out. These approaches fueled migration to Southern Mexico en route to the United States, and were criticized by analysts for being naive.

As Washington pressured Mexico City to halt or slow the escalating number of asylum seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, the López Obrador administration took a sharp turn. In 2019, it agreed to participate in the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, also known as Remain in Mexico) which mandated that U.S. asylum seekers stay in Mexico while their applications were processed. Later that year, under threat of high U.S. tariffs, Mexico deployed the National Guard (Guardia Nacional) along its southern and northern borders, which had a marked effect. There was a nearly 80 percent reduction of Central Americans presenting themselves to Mexican migration authorities over the June-December 2019 period, from more than 26,000 to fewer than 6,000. In early 2020, as a migrant caravan was making its way toward the country, Interior Minister Olga Sánchez Cordero declared that the government would not offer salvoconductos or otherwise support transiting migrants. “Mexico is not a lawless territory to migrants" she claimed. More recently, the Mexican government has agreed to accept thousands of returned Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans—who, for logistical and diplomatic reasons, U.S. authorities are unable or have only minimal ability to deport to their origin countries—as part of a U.S. program offering humanitarian parole to certain migrants from these countries.

This could be seen as a pragmatic approach under intense pressure from the Trump and Biden administrations. It was also a sign of a mature migration policy; regardless of the motivations and ad hoc implementation, it ended up addressing Mexico’s lack of border controls as well as many migrants’ dire conditions, both of which were serious issues. The moves also escalated Mexico’s role in trying to manage regional migration by calling for more robust cooperation across the Americas; these attempts worked in parallel with other efforts, such as the 2022 Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection.

Still, the shift was ideologically difficult and controversial. There has been very vocal opposition to using the National Guard for migration control. It is alluring to see the pivot as only possible because of López Obrador’s enormous political capital, given his iconic status on the left. It seems difficult to imagine another president navigating this gauntlet with similarly minimal political damage.

Of course, irregular migration has persisted, including via caravans. However, the administration’s actions amounted to a Rubicon-crossing moment that have had profound long-term implications for Mexico’s approach to irregular migrants. The National Guard has been used to control and curtail transit migration with varying degrees of intensity ever since.

Meanwhile, López Obrador’s administration has had only minimal success with its efforts to gather international partners to spur Marshall Plan-style economic development in Central American countries so as to stop migration before it begins. The administration has expanded its domestically focused Sowing Life (Sembrando Vida) and Young People Building the Future (Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro) programs to countries in Central America, but there has been little discernable impact.

Which Way Forward?

Structural drivers of migration—including global economic transformations and mounting regional crises—are unlikely to subside any time soon. The distinction between economic and humanitarian migrants has been blurred. Mexico’s standards for protection are very high due to its ratification of the 1984 Cartagena Declaration in addition to the UN 1951 Refugee Convention. Thus, the country is likely to continue experiencing intense pressures as a country of transit migration. This is a major change, and one that will demand intense focus in coming years. While hundreds of thousands of emigrants continue to leave Mexico and sizable numbers are now returning, these populations present much less vexing policy dilemmas than the large numbers of migrants who pass through on their way to the United States.

Thus, Mexico must prepare to fund the handling, processing, and accommodation of these migrants. Money is an issue, particularly if leaders want to effectively safeguard migrants and provide decent infrastructure for processing, housing, and integrating them. Policymakers also may want to consider creating new institutions, such as border and migration police, instead of using the National Guard for migration purposes.

At the same time, policies could take advantage of the situation by exploring how certain migrants could stay and benefit Mexico’s economy and growth prospects. Many migrants regardless of status who have been living in the country’s Southeast have found employment, particularly in public works in the Yucatan peninsula. Adopting a more open and welcoming posture to those already in the country could yield tangible benefits for Mexico and individual migrants themselves.

Lastly, leaders will need a credible and pragmatic strategy to humanely and effectively manage this movement. At least three components emerge as indispensable: fair and credible border controls, predictable rules of regional mobility, and enforcement mechanisms for these rules.

While there is not much the government can do to influence global migration pressures, it has some room to act. The broader economic and social integration taking place in North America (since the implementation in 1994 of the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA], which has since been rebranded as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement [USMCA]) and, more generally, across the Americas offers opportunities. Increasingly, regional leaders have come to recognize that no country alone can address the challenges that come with a hemisphere rapidly on the move. But when national leaders come together, these challenges can be tackled more effectively. Certainly, there are also tensions in regional relations. Migration can be a source of conflict. Thus, a relatively accommodating attitude is not only realistic, but perhaps also the only one feasible. Given how migration has benefitted tens of millions of Mexicans over the last century, its leaders should know the potentials and perils better than anyone else.

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