Mexican immigration into the United States is increasing. In the 1960s Mexico lost some 27,500 people annually to its northern neighbor. With the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, migration increased in the second half of the 1990s to 360,000, and between 2001 and 2005, to 396,000 people a year. According to data of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Border Patrol, and the Mexican National Population Council, around 28 million people of Mexican origin were living in the United States in 2005, among them 10.6 million who were born in Mexico. Most are men (55 percent); 53.1 percent are between 20 and 40 years old. Though the majority of migrants have some primary or secondary school education, every third Mexican with a doctorate works in the United States.
The main reason for Mexican emigration is a relative lack of job opportunities in Mexico. The Mexican government considers migration a valve for its social and economic problems, and many families depend on remittances. In 2006, Mexican workers in the United States sent approximately $23 billion to their families in Mexico. After income from the oil business, remittances are the second largest source of income. Because of its huge demand for cheap labor, the United States still attracts Mexicans. In the United States, 80 percent of Mexican workers earn more than $20,000 a year, whereas in Mexico, 75 percent of them earn less than $20 a day.
Approximately six million Mexicans live as undocumented aliens in the United States. Annually, U.S. authorities deport one million immigrants back to Mexico. Between 1997 and 2005, over 3,100 Mexicans died attempting to cross the border illegally. This number increased after the United States reinforced border controls and constructed defense walls along its frontier with Mexico. Migrants try to cross the border illegally in dangerous desert areas between Mexico and the U.S. states of Arizona and Texas. Many die due to disorientation, hyperthermia, or human traffickers (so-called polleros), who charge migrants up to $3,000 to be smuggled into the United States.
There are many migration streams from Mexico to the United States: legal immigration, unauthorized or illegal immigration, and temporary immigration, which can be legal (through various temporary work programs) or illegal. Each of these three variants creates its own particular economic opportunities, relationships between the migrants and Mexico, and forms of migrant adaptation to the United States.
Many Mexicans opt for temporary migration, which is still high in spite of immigration restrictions. Approximately 380,000 people enter the United States to work temporarily, principally in the agricultural sector. The majority are males (95 percent), 77 percent immigrate without permits, 41 percent contract a human trafficker, around 70 percent enter for the first time, 78 percent work illegally, and 60 percent get help from family and friends. Many come from central and rural areas of Mexico, such as Zacatecas, Michoacán, and Durango, to work primarily in California and Texas, and very often, they are part of new transnational social networks. Relatives and friends compose these communities, which permit cross border mobility between the societies of origins and settlement. They offer mutual help and solidarity. Finally, they form new identities linking the two nations. According to anthropologists Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch, and Cristina BlancSzanton, these “transmigrants,” linked by two societies, permit a synthesis of mother and host country. Yet their identities are often fragile and can be further threatened by the actions of so-called self-defense organizations such as the Minutemen of Arizona.
Since the implementation of Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, migration and security have become important parts of the U.S.-Mexican bilateral agenda. U.S. attorney general Janet Reno announced the operation in order to restore integrity and safety to the border in the San Diego area. As a consequence, illegal migration shifted eastward. Just days before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, U.S. president George W. Bush and Mexican president Vicente Fox were preparing a migration agreement. However, after 9/11, the fear of new attacks changed the national U.S. interests. The politics of border militarization and preventing illegal aliens from entering into the United States culminated eventually in different bills and proposals in the U.S. Congress. On September 14, 2006, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 6061, the Secure Fence Act, which was signed into law by President Bush. It authorized the construction of a double layered fence along one-third of the 2,100-mile U.S.-Mexico border. The following year, the U.S. Senate’s proposed Comprehensive Immigration Act of 2007, which sought opportunities for undocumented migrants to obtain legal status, failed to pass. In the 2008 presidential election campaign, migration was a nonissue. Though Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, promoted a new citizenship act and a new employment eligibility verification system, he favored additional customs and border protection.
Early in the Obama administration, migration remained part of the security debate. The economic and financial crisis that began in 2008 did not support new legal initiatives for illegal migrants from Mexico. President Obama suggested actualizing NAFTA and strengthening cooperation with Mexico in addressing issues around migration, economy, and security, especially in regard to drug and human trafficking violence. Mexican immigration continues to challenge the United States’ border security and economic future.
- Aguayo Quezada, Sergio, ed. El Alamanque Mexicano. Mexico City: Editorial Santillana, 2007.
- Borjas, George, ed. Mexican Immigration to the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
- Cieslik,Thomas, David Felsen, and Akis Kalaitzidis, eds. Immigration. A Documentary and Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2009.
- Cornelius,Wayne, and Jessa M. Lewis, eds. Impacts of Border Enforcement on Mexican Migration:The View from Sending Communities. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2007.
- Mexican National Population Council: www.conapo.gob.mx. Payan,Tony. The Three U.S.-Mexico Border Wars: Drugs, Immigration, and Homeland Security. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2006.
- Romero, Fernando. Hyper-Border: The Contemporary U.S.-Mexico Border and Its Future. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007.
- Schiller, Nina Glick, Linda Basch, and Cristina Blanc-Szanton. Transnational Projects, Postcolonial Predicaments, and Deterritorialized Nation-States. 4th ed. Amsterdam: Gordon-Breach, 1997.
- S. Border Patrol: www.usborderpatrol.com.
- S. Department of Homeland Security: www.dhs.gov.
- Zuniga,Victor, and Ruben Hernandez-Leon. New Destinations: Mexican Immigration in the United States. New York: Russell-Sage, 2005.
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