Mexico - Overview of the history of international migration in Mexico

Immigration up to the 1910 Revolution

After Mexico’s independence in 1821, and despite the resentment and mistrust of Spaniards as a result of three centuries of conquest and plundering, the idea spread throughout diverse sectors of society as well as Mexican leaders, to attract a rich foreign immigration to promote and consolidate the national project. The authorities were interested in populating the country’s vast northern territory and developing American-style agriculture, for which they enacted laws and decrees that, in essence, aimed to encourage European immigration (Berninger, 1974). However, midway through the Nineteenth century, foreigners were still very scarce, fluctuating between 25 and 30 thousand.

During this period, confrontations and internal struggles following independence, the loss of Texas (1836) and other vast northern territories (1848) as a result of the war with the United States as well as the first French invasion (1838-1839) and the French occupation and government of Maximilian (1862-1867), had a significant influence on the specific kind of privileges and restrictions towards immigrants in Mexico, as well as the search for an archetype of the ideal foreigner to contribute to the development of the nation (Salazar, 2010). These elements were reflected in the various legal instruments of the time and the migration legislation after the 1910 revolution, particularly as the policy veered towards restrictive immigration and intense nationalism.

It was during the last administration of Porfirio Díaz (1884-1911), that some foreign agricultural settlements were consolidated, many of which failed, and the entry of a greater number of immigrants was achieved, including settlers, workers, storekeepers, industrialists, and bankers, driven by railroad and mining developments, as well as trade and major cities. Nevertheless, the results were not as expected. A number of those foreigners did not settle in Mexico, and after some time emigrated to the United States; others left as a result of the violence generated by the 1910 revolution, and of those that settled permanently the majority remained in urban areas, with the exception of some agricultural settlements in the country’s northwest and south (Rodríguez, 2010; Palma 2006).

Even though immigrants were scarce, the most common were Spaniards, Americans, French, Germans, English, Italians, and Russians. Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans arrived as well as low-wage labourers. The Lebanese and Jewish immigrants together with the Chinese appeared at market places in a much more modest manner than the Europeans. Geographic proximity and political changes also brought Guatemalans and Cubans to Mexico towards the end of the Nineteenth century.

In 1910, the foreign population had doubled that of 1900, adding up to 116,526 individuals; which still only represented 0.8% of total residents in the country according to population census data. At that time, a sharp social structure in which Europeans and elite Creoles dominated lands and industry was established in Mexico; the indigenous people worked the land; and the majority of mestizos occupied intermediate socioeconomic niches. This situation had repercussions in the 1910 revolution and beyond.

With the culmination of the revolution in 1930, restrictions to immigration would dominate practically the entire Twentieth century under a nationalistic logic of ambivalent trends of phobias and preferences towards certain groups of foreigners, already in existence since the Nineteenth century. This was expressed in the low annual volume of entry of immigrants, which was only altered by the massive arrival of certain groups of exiles and refugees that were welcomed with special political procedures.


In 1900, 72% of the Mexican population lived in rural communities (less than 2,500 inhabitants). More than three-fourths of the working class depended on agriculture, and three-fourths of the middle class lived in towns and cities. Indigenous villages languished, while haciendas (ranches) and cities with Spanish-speaking populations flourished (McCaa, 1997). During the following decades there was a slow and sustained increase of urban communities. In the period from 1940 to 1970, Mexican authorities set a course towards rapid industrialisation of the country. In this phase, agricultural contribution to total production decreased from 21 to 11%, while industrial contribution increased from 25 to 34% (Levy and Szekely, 1982). A vast change occurred in the population pattern, with a massive emigration from rural areas to urban centres.

The drastic movement from rural areas to urban centres resulted in a tough test for the country’s capacity to build urban infrastructure and make space for the population influx. This disparity, exacerbated by limited social and economic mobility of huge sectors of the population, various economic crises, the effects of which were especially felt in rural areas, and the economic boom of Mexico’s Northern neighbour, were and are some of the main factors that drive Mexican emigration, the majority of which is to the United States (98%).

The migration circuit between Mexico and the United States is actually the oldest in the world. Its evolution may be organised in different stages of variable extent, with a non-homogenous growth rate over time (Durand and Massey, 2003; Delgado and Márquez, 2007):

  1. Loss of territory and the first Mexican immigrants in the United States (1845-1854). The origin of emigration from Mexico to the United States dates back to the conflicts between both countries midway through the Nineteenth century and the loss of Mexico’s remote northern provinces, Alta California, New Mexico and Texas, that became part of the United States through annexation, conquest, or simply purchase, “the remote North became ever since the Far West” (Durand and Arias, 2004). In this way, Mexicans who inhabited that vast region became de facto immigrants simply as a result of the movement of territorial limits (Delgado and Márquez, 2007). The urban heritage left by Spain in that gigantic territory boiled down to a few cities with scarce populations and a variety of scattered settlements of partially assimilated indigenous farmers (Durand and Arias, 2004). Beyond the number of Mexicans settled on those lands, and the discussion on how many remained and how many returned, in historic terms it is interesting to highlight that these events represent the onset of the building of social networks between relatives (close or extended) that lived or decided to live on one side or the other of this virtual border, determined by extra-regional political criteria. Ever since, the networks have evolved to constitute real bi-national organisations, which have gradually spread throughout both countries. These networks and organisations, combined with various economic and political factors, have stoked labour exodus from Mexico to the United States for almost a century and a half. Estimates of the number of Mexicans that remained in the United States at the time vary between forty and sixty thousand persons.
  2. Railroad expansion and the first migration movements from Mexico to the United States (1855-1900). Migration movements at the end of the Nineteenth century would not have been possible without the development of railroad networks in both countries. The railroad was not only the means of transportation for the exit, but also the reason for the movements. The almost simultaneous development of railroad networks in both countries, as well as agricultural expansion in the United States, gave birth to a bi-national labour market in which an increasing accumulation of Mexican workers with experience in both sectors sustained a large portion of the expansion of these activities in the neighbour country to the north. During the last four decades of the Nineteenth century, migration flows from Mexico to the United States was continuous but moderate. The number of Mexicans in that country increased slowly in this period,  from sixty-eight thousand in 1880, to seventy-eight thousand in 1890, and 103 thousand in 1900 (McCaa, 1997; Durand and Arias, 2004).
  3. The enganche (hook) and the displaced of the Mexican Revolution  (1900-1920). This period was characterised by a private and semi-forced labour hiring practice, called “the hook” (“enganche”). The deterioration of living conditions towards the final years of the Porfirio Díaz administration in Mexico, coupled with the economic prosperity of the Soutwest of the United States, the thousands of displaced persons as a result of the Mexican Revolution, and the increase in demand for cheap labour in the United States due to its entry in World War I. As a result, the increase of Mexican emigration was dramatic during the first two decades of the Twentieth century. After only ten years, the number of Mexican-born persons in the United States doubled, reaching 220 thousand in 1910. It is estimated that half lived in Texas, followed by Arizona and California. When the Mexican revolution erupted, almost 2.5% of the population born in Mexico already resided in the United States. This figure would go up to 7.5% in 1920, when many Mexicans escaped the post-revolutionary political chaos and filled the labour vacuum generated in the United States due to enormous post-war economic development (McCaa, 1997). As a result, during the second decade of the Twentieth century, the Mexican population doubled again in the United States, and reached a total of 480 thousand persons (Durand and Arias, 2004). During this period, the big American agricultural, railroad, and mining companies became dependent on Mexican workers, who were willing to accept temporary employment and low wages (Martin, 1993).
  4. Deportations and agrarian reform (1920-1941). During this period three massive return cycles can be identified, one of which was the deportations in response to the 1929 economic crisis. The total number of Mexicans deported for this reason is calculated to be more than half a million (Carreras, 1974). Many of the repatriated migrants were helped by the agrarian reform in Mexico, which was carried out by the governments that emerged after the Mexican revolution. In this period laws were enacted that restricted the presence of foreign workers in Mexico, such as the 1931 Labour Act (Ley del Trabajo), the 1930 Migration Act (Ley de Migración), and the 1936 General Population Act (Ley General de Población).
  5. 5. The bracero (farm workers) programs (1942-1964). Given the United States’ need for agricultural workers after its entry into World War II, various bilateral programs were signed with Mexico. The first was in 1942, and was extended until 1964, due to the post-war economic boom. It is estimated that during this period Mexico contributed 4.7 million workers to the United States, with an annual average of 438 thousand between 1956 and 1959. Despite this program, undocumented immigration was still a major source of Mexican labour in the United States. The amount of detentions carried out by American immigration authorities was greater than the number of workers admitted through the program, some 5.2 million (Morales, 1989).
  6. The era of the undocumented (1965-1986). The United States unilaterally terminated the Bracero program and decided to regulate migration flows through the establishment of a quota system, a more rigorous control of the border with Mexico, and a systematic deportation of those without proper documentation. This measure resulted in a categorical failure with regard to immigration control; established quotas were insufficient in the face of labour demands, the border was crossed with great ease, and deportations did not discourage new crossing attempts. As a result, undocumented immigration increased rapidly. Apprehension of these migrants tripled in the first five years after the termination of the “bracero program”; going from forty thousand annual incidents during the first five-year period of the 1960’s to 120 thousand in the second five-year period; it was five-fold during the 70’s (670 thousand incidents), and reached almost one million incidents or more between 1977 and 1985, reaching 1.6 million in 1986 (Morales, 1989). On the Mexican side, agro-industrial mechanisation in the 60’s and 70’s contributed significantly to the increase of emigration to the North.
  7. Legalisation and clandestine migration(1987 to date). The implementation of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) initiated an amnesty process for undocumented immigrants that lived in the United States, allowing the legalisation of 2.3 million persons; in addition, a special worker program (H visa) was created. With legalisation, a clandestine migration process was generated, in response to the increasing labour demand. The increasing rate of Mexican emigration to the United States, far from stopping, seemed to exacerbate. It is estimated that 4.4 million Mexicans lived outside of the country (almost all in the United States) in 1990, approximately double the figure estimated for 1980. Currently, the U.S. immigration system is totally overwhelmed. It is estimated that in January 2009, 10.8 million undocumented immigrants lived in that country, more than half were Mexican (Hoefer, 2010).

In this period, Mexican migration was gradually changing from circular and temporary to permanent. In addition to being prominently agricultural, occupational sectors diversified to include construction and services in particular. At the end of the 1990’s, changes to Mexican agricultural policy contributed to the acceleration of the flight from Mexican rural areas at the same time that the American economy created millions of jobs that could be filled by Mexican immigrants (Martin, 2002). Although the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) created employment in certain sectors, it hit the Mexican agriculture particularly hard. In Mexico, 1.3 million agricultural jobs were lost (of which 1 million were men and 300,000 were women), most of them in traditional crops such as corn and beans. Although NAFTA may have accelerated this process, this trend had been occurring for several years already (Alba, 2010). It is estimated that 11.7 million Mexican immigrants live in the United States, more than half of them in undocumented conditions (US Bureau Census, 2010).

As a result of the global economic and financial crisis and greater immigration control by the United States, a reduction of first-time exit of Mexican emigrants has been observed in recent years; i.e. many potential emigrants have decided to postpone their migration movement. Therefore, net loss due to international migration is estimated to be approximately one hundred thousand persons in 2010, a figure three times less than recorded during 2007 (320 thousand) (ENOE, 2007 and 2010), and much lower than the estimated annual average of 400 thousand persons per year during the 2000-2006 period. The number of Mexicans detained by immigration authorities in the United States along the Mexican border has also shown a declining trend and reaffirms the deceleration of Mexican emigration. The figure has decreased gradually in the last five years, from one million in fiscal year 2005 to 400 thousand in fiscal year 2010 (US CBP, 2011).

Although the Mexican immigrant population in Canada is a small fraction compared to that which exists in the United States, it has also increased considerably since 1990; from 19 thousand in 1990 to 50 thousand in 2006 (Statistics Canada, 2009). The type of immigrant in Canada varies, but recent movements have identified highly qualified individuals and refugee applicants, some with reasons based on violence in Mexico, or as a migration strategy given the benefits offered by Canada’s refugee system. Of the more than 9,400 applications for refugee status in 2008, only 11% were accepted by the end of the year (CIC, 2009). Mexican emigration to Europe is predominantly towards Spain and Germany as the main countries of destination, and the flows from Mexico towards the Latin American region are insignificant.

Mexico is also an important recipient of remittances, which represent the second source of foreign currency from abroad, after oil exports (Alba, 2010). Although remittances represent less than 3% of GDP, they have been an important contribution to the development and survival of many communities and families since the 1980’s. Currently, remittances represent family subsistence means for 1.6 million households (ENIGH, 2008). Remittances also increased constantly in volume, and the latest figures show that they went from $US 6.6 billion in 2000 to $US 26 billion in 2007, and, as a result of the economic crisis and migration stability, decreased to $US 21 billion during 2009 and 2010 (Bank of Mexico, 2011).

New trends: irregular transit migration

Parallel to the gorwth in Mexican emigration over the last 25 years, irregular migration through the national territory with the sole objective of reaching the United States has been significant. Irregular transitory migration gained force midway through the 1980’s as a result of the intensification of armed conflicts in Central America, and gradually increased reaching its maximum historical estimate of some 430 thousand incidents in 2005, regardless of the peace agreements and the end of the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala in 1992 and 1996, respectively.

Since 2005, this flow has substantially decreased, reaching some 140 thousand incidents in 2010 (Rodríguez, Berumen and Martínez, 2011). This abrupt reduction may be explained by factors similar to those already mentioned with regard to the decrease in Mexican emigration towards the United States. In the case of Central Americans, however, their increased vulnerability to violence exercised against them by organized crime during their transit through Mexico which includes kidnappings and assassinations, is also significant.

In this process that uses Mexican territory as an irregular migration route to the United States, South Americans, Caribbeans, Africans, and Asians also participate, though in much smaller numbers, as part of international networks of migrant smuggling and trafficking in persons. Transit migration further complicates migration dynamics in the country and plays  a part in the shaping of current public opinion and interpretation with reference to the presence of foreigners in Mexico.

In 2010, foreigners detained in Mexico due to irregular migration status numbered about 70 thousand; of those, 92% were Central Americans (41.4% Guatemalans; 34.1% Hondurans, and 15.1% Salvadorans). The rest came from other countries in the Americas (4.4%), Africa (1.8%), Asia (1.5%), and Europe and Oceania (0.3%) (INM, 2011).

From asylum seekers and refugee claimants to the new immigration

Although the second half of the Twentieth century consolidated Mexico as a country of origin and transit of irregular international migration, it has also had an important role as a fostering country for different groups of political refugees and refugees in general. At the end of the 1920’s, the country received Russians seeking asylum, coming from the recently created USSR after the Bolshevik revolution. The 30’s and 40’s brought waves of immigrants escaping dictatorships in Europe. Between 1939 and 1942 some twenty thousand republican Spaniards arrived, and their contribution to Mexican education and culture are recognised up to this day (Pla, 2001). Other groups, however, did not have the same fortune.

In 1954, Mexico became the most important destination for refugees from Guatemala escaping the civil war. The same period attracted intellectuals from the United States fleeing from McCarthyism persecution, as well as Cubans in the 50’s and 60’s, first as a result of the dictatorship, and later the socialist revolution. The 1970’s brought Argentines, Chileans, and Uruguayans seeking asylum and protection from their respective military dictatorships (Yankelevich, 2002). Between 1970 and 1990, Mexico also received Central American refugees from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, who fled armed conflicts. Among them the arrival in the 80’s of about sixty thousand Guatemalans is of considerable note. When peace was restored in their country, many of them returned in the 90’s, and around twenty thousand remained in Mexico as permanent immigrants, many of whom became naturalised Mexicans, thanks to the ease granted by the government for their definitive settlement (Rodríguez, 2010).

Historically, the foreign-born population in Mexico consists of three main nationalities: Spaniards, Americans, and Guatemalans, independently of the variations of volume given the historical period and un-comparable with the principal group of foreigners, which since the 1930s has been American. In the 2000 census, those born in the United States made up 70% of the total of those foreign-born residents in Mexico. In addition to the real immigration of this group to Mexico, which is high, it needs to be pointed out that more than 60% of these individuals born in the United States, never lived or lived very briefly in that country, because they are children of Mexicans residing on Mexico’s border area, or are children of Mexican emigrants that sent their sons and daughters to live with relatives in their communities of origin, or migrants that have returned at various times (Rodríguez, 2010).

According to the population census, the proportion of persons born abroad residing in Mexico has never reached 1% of the total population, assuming this population segment as immigrants, despite the enormous rise of Mexican emigration towards the United States as of the 70’s, and that this data includes some hundreds of thousands of Mexicans due to the reason previously stated, regarding those born in the United States. The 2000 population census reported 492,617 persons born abroad, a population that doubled in the 2010 census with 961,121. Of the latter, 77% were born in the United States (INEGI, 2011). It is estimated that at the end of 2009, 262,672 persons with a valid immigration document resided in Mexico (INM-CEM, 2011), to which should be added foreigners naturalised as Mexicans.

As of the second half of the Twentieth century, in addition to nationals of the United States, the groups originating from Latin America and the Caribbean acquire substantial importance, displacing in volume Europeans and Asians. In the last two decades Guatemalans, Colombians, Argentines, Cubans, Venezuelans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans are of note. Within the permanent trickle of foreigners to Mexico, most recent data indicates an increase in recent years of the arrival of foreigners from the countries already mentioned, but also from Canada, Brazil, and Asia, coming from China and South Korea.

In general, the importance of immigration in Mexico continues to be more qualitative than quantitative, with a high socio-cultural impact due to the level of education of immigrants and their participation in the labour market as professionals, management personnel, or investors, even if they do not all fall into these categories; notwithstanding the very particular situations of Americans and Guatemalans.

Guatemalan border workers

Ever since current borders between Guatemala and Mexico were defined in 1882, and the Soconusco region became part of Mexican territory, the region’s labour market has been closely linked to Guatemalan agricultural workers. They, in essence, maintain their residency in Guatemala, but have been key to the development of coffee plantations and other agricultural products in Chiapas, Mexico. A great part of this production would not have been possible without that labour force (Ángeles, 2000). Since the 90’s, the Mexican government has tried to regulate and document these flows through various mechanisms, registering up to 70 thousand workers in one year. In 2010, the National Institute of Migration (Instituto Nacional de Migración - INM) documented 28,544 Guatemalan border workers, and perhaps an equal amount work irregularly (INM, 2011).

In the last two decades, as a result of the region’s new economic dynamics and the deterioration of the agricultural sector, Guatemalan border workers have extended their presence to more regions of Southern Mexico and various sectors of the economy such as commerce, various services, construction, and domestic service (Nájera, 2009; EMIF SUR, 2011).

These workers carry out an intense cross-border life, whether documented or not, that is added to all the movement of local visitors –more than 1.7 million registered crossings in 2010- and to migrants in irregular transit towards the United States (Berumen and Rodríguez, 2009; INM, 2011).


In short, Mexico is a country of origin, transit, destination, and return of migrants. Since the Twentieth century to date, emigration has been a prevailing component of the migration process, which was accentuated in the 70’s, and, currently around 11.7 million Mexicans reside in the United States. More than half of them do so irregularly. This historical process has been accompanied by some massive waves of deportations of Mexican migrants from that country, mainly in the 20’s and 30’s, as well as the forced return to Mexico of hundreds of thousands of migrants that are detained annually by American immigration authorities in their attempt to enter that country.

In turn, the immigration of foreigners ─though on a minor scale─ has also been present in the 200 years of existence of the Mexican nation without ever reaching 1% of the national population. The three nationalities that historically have had a major presence in the country have been: Spaniards, Guatemalans, and Americans, of which the latter are the largest component since 1930, reaching 77% of the total in the 2010 population census. Additionally, it must be highlighted the important role that Mexico has had as a receiver country of various groups of asylum seekers, and general refugees, among which Spaniards, Guatemalans, and South Americans must be noted, who have left an important footprint on Mexican culture and society in the last 50 years, reinforcing the observation of a greater qualitative, rather than quantitative, impact of foreigners in the country.

In the last 25 years, the increase of irregular transit migration across Mexican territory to reach the United States is added to the above, mainly from Central America. This flow reached more than 400 thousand episodes in 2005, and decreased towards 140 thousand in 2009 and 2010. In turn, there is an intense cross-border life on the northern and southern borders of Mexico that is witnessed through various demonstrations of the international mobility of persons with Americans, Guatemalans, and Belizeans.