Pew Hispanic Center Report: Unemployment Plays Small Role in Spurring Mexican Migration to U.S.

By Press Release, Pew Hispanic Center, December 6, 2005

The vast majority of undocumented migrants [illegal aliens] from Mexico were gainfully employed before they left for the United States, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report released today. The report suggests that failure to find work at home does not seem to be the primary reason that the estimated 6.3 million undocumented migrants from Mexico have come to the U.S.

Once they arrive and pass through a relatively brief period of transition and adjustment, migrants [illegal aliens] have little trouble finding work, according to the study. Family and social networks play a significant role in this; large shares of migrants [illegal aliens] report talking to people they know in the U.S. about job opportunities and living with relatives after arrival. They easily make transitions into new jobs, even though most find themselves working in industries that are new to them. Also, many are paid at minimum-wage levels or below, and it is not uncommon for these workers to experience relatively long spells of unemployment.

The demand for labor appears to play a strong role in shaping the economic destiny of Mexican migrants. Regardless of their background and origin in Mexico or their year of arrival, migrants [illegal aliens] are concentrated in the same handful of industries in the U.S.--agriculture, hospitality, construction and manufacturing.

However, there are also signs of change in the characteristics of migrants [illegal aliens] and the nature of the demand for them. The more recently arrived and younger migrants from Mexico are better educated than their predecessors (though their education levels remain low by U.S. standards). They are also increasingly coming from a greater variety of regions in Mexico and making homes in new Mexican-migrant settlement areas in the U.S., such as New York and Raleigh, N.C. The latest arrivals are less likely to be farm workers and more likely to have a background in other industries, such as commerce and sales. More and more, Mexican migrants [illegal aliens] are being hired in the construction and hospitality industries in the U.S.

These findings emerge from the Pew Hispanic Center's Survey of Mexican Migrants. The survey provides detailed information on the demographic characteristics, living arrangements, work experiences and attitudes toward immigration of 4,836 Mexican migrants [illegal aliens] who completed a 12-page questionnaire as they were applying for a matrícula consular, an identity document issued by Mexican diplomatic missions. The survey was not a random sample of foreign-born Mexicans but one designed to generate the maximum number of observations of migrants who were seeking further documentation of their identity in the U.S. Fieldwork was conducted in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Raleigh and Fresno, Calif., from July 12, 2004, to Jan. 28, 2005. While respondents were not asked directly to specify their immigration status, most are believed to lack authorization to work in the U.S. Thus, the survey provides a unique opportunity to study the economic status of a population that is otherwise very difficult to measure.

The major findings of this study are:

  • Unemployment plays a minimal role in motivating workers from Mexico to migrate to the U.S. Only 5% of the survey respondents who have been in the U.S. for two years or less were unemployed while still in Mexico.

  • Unemployment in the U.S. is above normal only for respondents who have been here for less than six months. Nearly 15% of the latest arrivals reported they were not currently working. But only about 5% of respondents who migrated more than six months ago reported they were unemployed in the U.S.

  • Immigration status has little impact on the likelihood of unemployment in the U.S. Respondents who reported that they have a U.S. government-issued ID had the same employment experiences as those who do not have any documents making them eligible for legal employment.

  • Family networks play a key role in locating jobs for migrants. More than 80% of respondents have a relative other than a spouse or child in the U.S., and talking with friends and relatives in the U.S. was the most commonly cited method--by 45% of respondents--for finding information about jobs in the U.S.

  • Migrants [illegal aliens] from Mexico are responsive to regional variations in demand for their services. Construction is the dominant industry for employing migrants in Atlanta, Dallas and Raleigh; hospitality is the major employer in New York City; manufacturing in Chicago; and agriculture in Fresno.

  • A very high percentage (38%) of migrants [illegal aliens] reported experiencing a spell of unemployment lasting more than a month in the past year. This unusually widespread--compared to other U.S. workers--experience of temporary unemployment is evident among Mexican migrants regardless of their year of arrival, legal status, education and survey city.

  • The median weekly earnings of survey respondents are only $300. Earnings are especially low among women, those who speak no English and those who do not have a U.S. government-issued ID.

  • Migrant [illegal aliens] workers in the survey have a background that resembles the core of Mexico's labor force. Two-thirds of respondents who entered the U.S. in the past two years worked in agriculture, construction, manufacturing or retail trade in Mexico. That is also true for 57% of the labor force in Mexico.

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