I. Overview

A first-of-its-kind survey of nearly 5,000 Mexican migrants who were interviewed while applying for identity cards at Mexican consulates in the United States has found that most want to remain in this country indefinitely but would participate in a temporary worker program that granted them legal status for a time and eventually required them to return to Mexico.

Survey respondents said by a margin of 4-to-1 that they would participate in such a temporary worker program, the broad outlines of which have been proposed by President George W. Bush. A similarly lopsided majority of respondents said they would participate in a different kind of program advocated by some leading Democrats that could lead to permanent legal status in this country for many unauthorized migrants.

The Pew Hispanic Center’s Survey of Mexican Migrants provides detailed information on the demographic characteristics, living arrangements, work experiences and attitudes toward immigration of 4,836 Mexican adults who completed a 12-page questionnaire as they were applying for a matrícula consular, an identity document issued by Mexican diplomatic missions. Fieldwork was conducted in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Raleigh, NC, and Fresno, CA, from July 12, 2004, to Jan. 28, 2005.

The sampling strategy for the survey was designed to generate the maximum number of observations of Mexicans living in the United States and seeking documentation of their identity at a Mexican consulate. Respondents were not asked directly to specify their immigration status. However, slightly more than half of the respondents (N=2,566) said that they did not have any form of photo ID issued by any government agency in the United States. The share of respondents saying they had no U.S.-issued identity documents was much higher among the more recently arrived—80 percent among those in the country for two years or less and 75 percent for those in the country for five years or less.

This is the first in a series of reports on the survey’s findings. Subsequent reports will examine a variety of topics in detail, including the migrants’ origins in Mexico, their employment and economic status, banking and remittances, and gender and family structure. The full dataset of survey responses will be made available to researchers on Sept. 1, 2005, through the Pew Hispanic Center Web site (www.pewresearch.org/hispanic).

Major findings in this report include:

  • When asked how long they expected to remain in the United States, a majority of respondents picked either “as long as I can” (42%) or “for the rest of my life” (17%). Meanwhile, 27 percent said they expected to stay for five years or less.
  • By a 4-to-1 margin (71% vs. 18%), survey respondents said they would participate in a program that would allow them to work in the United States and cross the border legally on the condition that they eventually return to Mexico. Respondents who said they had no form of U.S.-issued photo ID were even more positive (79% vs. 16%).
  • Among respondents who said they intended to stay in the United States for “as long as I can” or for “the rest of my life,” a clear majority—68 percent—said they would participate in a temporary immigration program that would require them to return to Mexico. Acceptance of the idea of a temporary program was even higher—80 percent—among those who stated an intention to return to Mexico within five years.
  • By a margin of 72% to 17%, respondents said they would participate in a program that offered the prospect of permanent legalization for migrants who lived here for five years, continued working and had no problems with legal authorities. Respondents who said they had no U.S.-issued ID were even more positive (79% to 15%).
  • The largest shares of positive responses to questions about both programs came from young, relatively recently arrived migrants, who comprised nearly half of the total sample.
  • By wide margins, respondents in the overall sample (79% vs. 13%) and among those who said they had no U.S.-issued ID (82% vs. 12%) said that their friends and family in Mexico would be willing to participate in a temporary worker program that would eventually require them to return to Mexico.
  • The survey captured a distinctively young and recently arrived segment of the Mexican-born population living in the United States. Nearly half of the sample (48%) was between 18 and 29 years old, and almost half (43%) had been in the country for five years or less.
  • Respondents to the survey showed a higher level of educational achievement than the adult population of Mexico at large. The share of respondents whose education stopped at primary school is half of that in the Mexican adult population, and the share that went as far as high school is three times as large.
  • Significant differences emerge in the characteristics of respondents in traditional settlement areas for Mexican migrants such as Los Angeles and Fresno compared with those in new areas such as Raleigh and New York. These differences are relevant to determining the impact of Mexican migration on host communities. For example, in traditional settlement areas as many as half of all the Mexican migrants surveyed have children in public schools, compared with a quarter in new settlement areas.

The Survey of Mexican Migrants was a purposive sample, in which any individual seeking an identity document on the days the survey was in progress could choose to participate. It was not a probability sample, in which researchers randomly select participants in a survey to avoid any self-selection bias. Moreover, the results have not been weighted to match the estimated parameters of a target population as is often the case with public opinion surveys. Instead the data are presented as raw counts.

Conducting a survey of matrícula applicants on the premises of Mexican consulates while they waited for paperwork to be processed permitted the execution of a lengthy questionnaire among a large number of individuals in the target population. No other survey on this scale has been attempted with Mexican migrants living in the United States.

The survey allows an extraordinary view of a population that by its very nature is exceptionally difficult to measure and study: Mexicans who live in the country without proper documentation and in particular those who have been in the country for only a few years. The survey data and other evidence suggest that a substantial share of the respondents, especially among those that are young and recently arrived, are not in the United States with legal immigrant status.

The matrícula consular is a laminated identity card that bears an individual’s photograph, name and home address in the United States and that attests that he or she is a citizen of Mexico. The card is issued by Mexican officials without inquiring as to the individual’s immigration status in the United States. As such, it cannot be used as proof of permission to reside or work in the country, and U.S. immigration authorities will not accept it as proof that the holder has the right to enter the country. However, the matrícula is accepted as an identity document that establishes the holder’s local address by many law enforcement agencies and local governments. The U.S. Treasury Department ruled in 2003 that the matrícula can be used to open bank accounts. Two-thirds of the respondents in this survey—3,265 individuals—said one of the reasons they were applying for the matrícula was to use as an ID card in the United States.

For individuals returning to Mexico, the matrícula can be used in place of a Mexican passport to enter Mexico at those points of entry, primarily airports, where Mexican authorities conduct immigration checks. And, 43 percent of the respondents said one of their intended uses of the matrícula was for travel to Mexico. However, an individual who plans to return to the United States legally will need a valid Mexican passport and some kind of U.S.-issued visa to reenter the country except for short visits near the border.

The act of applying for a matrícula consular is not evidence that an individual is an unauthorized migrant. However, a permanent legal immigrant who has established a domicile in the United States and has been in the country for an extended period of time has access to other kinds of identity documents. Under normal circumstances, such an individual should be in possession of a U.S.-issued document attesting to his or her immigration status, and that document can be used to acquire a Social Security card, a driver’s license or other forms of photo ID issued by government agencies in the United States.

Most tourists and business travelers are allowed to remain in the United States legally for no more than a year, and 90 percent of the survey respondents said they had been in the United States for a year or more. Temporary workers and others who are allowed to reside in the country for longer than a year on non-immigrant visas make up a very small share of the migrant flow from Mexico.

Over the past decade 80 percent or more of the Mexican migrants who have come to live in the United States on a long-term basis have added to the stock of the unauthorized population, according to estimates based on data collected by Mexican and U.S. government agencies. As a result of the substantial illegal flow in recent years, those estimates indicate that about half of the 10 million Mexican nationals living in the United States reside in the country without authorization.

The Survey of Mexican Migrants was conducted on the premises of the Mexican consulates in Los Angeles, New York, Dallas, Chicago, Fresno, Raleigh and Atlanta, but respondents were advised that this was not an official survey and that it would have no bearing on their business at the consulate. Mexican authorities cooperated with the fieldwork by allowing it to take place at the consulates. However, the design, development and execution of the survey, the compilation and analysis of the resulting data and the writing and editing of this report were under the full and exclusive control of the Pew Hispanic Center. Consulate personnel did not take part in any of the fieldwork, and all of the costs of conducting the survey were borne by the Pew Hispanic Center. Fieldwork was conducted by International Communications Research of Media, PA, and Einat Temkin, of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communications, who served as fieldwork coordinator. Respondents could complete the questionnaire themselves, seek the assistance of an interviewer for any part of it or have the entire questionnaire read to them by an interviewer. All of the fieldwork was conducted in Spanish.

The sites for the survey fieldwork were chosen with several objectives in mind. One was to cover the major concentrations of the Mexican migrant population; hence the choices of California, Illinois and Texas. There was also a desire to produce a mix of locations with well-established immigrant populations, such as Los Angeles, and relatively new immigrant populations, such as Raleigh. And the survey sought a mix of major metropolitan areas, smaller cities and at least one site where a sizeable share of the Mexican population works in agriculture (Fresno). Thus there are some significant variations in demographic characteristics among the samples generated in the various cities.

No researcher has attempted to conduct a survey of a nationally representative sample of the undocumented population that was drawn with the level of statistical certainty that is routine for large-scale public opinion polls, and this survey does not purport to present that kind of sample. Within limits inherent to the nature of the target population, however, the Survey of Mexican Migrants offers an opportunity to examine this population at a level of detail and with a level of confidence not available heretofore.

Neither the U.S. Census Bureau nor any other U.S. government agency conducts a count of unauthorized migrants or defines their demographic characteristics based on specific enumeration. There is, however, a widely accepted methodology for estimating the size and certain characteristics of the undocumented population based on census data. The survey respondents resemble the undocumented population of Mexican origins in recent estimates in their age and gender and the amount of time they have been in the United States.

For more information on how this survey was conducted and a comparison of the sample with estimates of the undocumented population, please see the appendix on methodology at the end of this report.

About the Survey

Fieldwork was conducted at Mexican consulates in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Raleigh and Fresno from July 12, 2004, to Jan. 28, 2005. A total of 4,836 individuals responded to a 12-page questionnaire in Spanish. All respondents were in the process of applying for a matrícula consular, an identity card issued by Mexican diplomatic missions. This was not a random survey but one designed to generate the maximum number of observations of Mexican migrants who were seeking further documentation of their identity in the United States. (For further details see the methodological appendix at the end of this report.)

The Pew Hispanic Center is an independent research organization, and it formulated the questionnaire and controlled all of the fieldwork and data preparation. The Center wishes to thank the Ministry of Foreign Relations of Mexico, the Institute for Mexicans Abroad and the Mexican consulates in the seven cities where the survey was conducted for permitting the fieldwork to take place on consular premises. The data and conclusions presented in this report are the exclusive responsibility of the Pew Hispanic Center and do not necessarily reflect the official views of either the foreign ministry or the government of Mexico.