I. Overview

A 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 an overwhelming majority would vote in Mexican elections scheduled for next year if they had the opportunity. The Mexican Congress is now debating a proposal that would permit absentee voting by Mexicans living outside the country for the first time.

Nearly nine out of ten (87%) respondents said they would vote in the next Mexican elections if they could, and the sentiment carried in near equal measure across every demographic, socio-economic and geographic category except for age. Older respondents were somewhat more likely than younger voters to say they wanted to vote in the elections.

A key issue in the congressional debate in Mexico is whether to permit voting only by migrants who already hold a valid voting credential issued in Mexico or whether to issue credentials in the United States. In the survey sample, 42 percent of the respondents said they had brought their voting credential with them to the United States. Respondents who have arrived in the United States more recently are more likely to have a voting credential with them than those who have been here longer. For example, 64 percent of respondents who have been in the United States for two years or less said they have the credential with them, compared with 29 percent of those who have been in the country for more than 15 years.

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 consulates. 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 second in a series of reports on the survey’s findings. The first report examined attitudes towards immigration and major demographic characteristics. Subsequent reports will examine a variety of topics in detail, including the migrants’ 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:

  • The prospect of voting in Mexican elections has broad and deep appeal among survey respondents, with 87 percent saying they would vote if they could.
  • The same overwhelming sentiment in favor of voting was expressed across every demographic category and in every location where the survey was conducted. No significant differences emerged by gender, education or the amount of time a respondent had spent in the United States.
  • Older voters were somewhat more likely to say they wanted to exercise the franchise in Mexico, with 90 percent of those over the age of 50 saying they would vote if they could, compared with 84 percent of those 18 to 29 years old.
  • In the survey sample, 42 percent of respondents said they had brought their Mexican voting credentials with them to the United States while 54 percent said they had not.
  • The share of respondents saying they had a credential with them in the United State was highest among the most recently arrived migrants. The share of respondents who had been in the United States for two years or less saying they held a credential was 64 percent, compared with 29 percent of those who had been in the United States 15 years or longer.
  • Several Mexican states, particularly in the south of the country, have patterns of migration that have been established more recently than those in states in the center of the country that have been sending large numbers of migrants north for many decades. This is reflected in the share of respondents who say they have a voting credential with them in the United States. For example, 63 percent of the respondents from Veracruz, a state with a recent history of migration, said they had the credential with them compared with 37 percent of those from Jalisco, a state with a long-established history of migration.
  • A little more than a third (35%) of the respondents said they owned land, housing or a business in Mexico, but the share was much higher among men (43%) than among women (24%).
  • The survey respondents showed a high propensity to send money home to their families in the form of remittances. Nearly eight in ten (78%) said they send money to Mexico, and about half (52%) said they send money once a month or more.
  • More than half of the survey respondents (54%) said they talk with their family in Mexico by phone at least once a week. Even among those who have been in the United States for more than ten years, 46 percent are on the phone to Mexico at least once a week.
  • A substantial share of respondents, even the youngest and those who have arrived most recently, said they have previously visited the United States. About half the respondents ages 18 to 29 and a third who have been in the country for two years or less said they have made prior trips to the United States.

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. 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.

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.

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 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 production 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.

The sample for this survey drew heavily from among young and recently arrived migrants. The largest age group was the 48 percent of respondents who were 18 to 29 years old. Of the total, 43 percent said they had been in the United States for five years or less. By comparison, only 34 percent of the full Mexican-born population—including the undocumented, legal immigrants and U.S. citizens—living in the United States falls into the 18-to-29-year-old age range, and only 24 percent has been in the country for five years or less.

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.