This study presents new evidence on the economic status of unauthorized migrants from Mexico. It is estimated that there are 6.3 million unauthorized workers in the United States at the present time.1 Approximately 3.5 million of those workers are from Mexico alone. Moreover, research has shown that 85 percent of the migrants from Mexico are currently entering the U.S. without authorization. One consequence is that the overall flow of undocumented migrants to the U.S. is now estimated to be greater than the flow of legal migrants (Passel, 2005a, b). However, while much is inferred about the unauthorized population, it is an especially difficult population to identify and analyze in detail. This study calls upon a unique new data source to report on the pre-migration and post-migration economic status of a population of Mexican workers who largely are believed to be in the U.S. without authorization.

A Note on Terminology

The terms Hispanic and Latino are used interchangeably in this report. The terms “migrants” and “migrant workers” are typically used to refer to respondents to the Survey of Mexican Migrants and the population they most closely resemble, namely, undocumented migrants from Mexico working in the U.S.

The terms are not intended as references to the overall population of Mexican migrants in the United States or to workers who migrate from job to job.

Unauthorized workers from Mexico are important to the U.S. labor market in both absolute numbers and pace of growth. The 3.5 million unauthorized workers from Mexico account for nearly 20 percent of the Hispanic labor force in the U.S. Also, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that undocumented workers from Mexico entered the U.S. at a rate of about 300,000 workers per year between 2000 and 2004.2 Not only is that a significant component of the growth in the Hispanic labor force, it looms large when compared with the growth in the entire U.S. labor force. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the U.S. labor force increased at an average of about 1.2 million workers per year between 2000 and 2004. This means that during that period unauthorized workers from Mexico accounted for approximately one out of every four new workers in the U.S. labor force.3

This study explores three major questions regarding the unauthorized work force from Mexico.

First, it examines the labor market background of migrants prior to their departure from Mexico. Is the inability to find a job at home a primary motivation for migrating to the U.S.? Are these migrants representative of the labor force in Mexico or are they drawn from the fringes of the labor force? Do the demographic and economic characteristics of the most recent migrant stream differ from those of older generations of migrants?

Second, the study analyzes the transition of these migrants into the U.S. labor market. What is the most common method by which they find work? How long does it take for them to find employment? How much do family networks in the U.S. play a role in the transition? Which industries in the U.S. have the greatest demand for migrant labor?

Finally, the study reports on the economic status of migrants in their new jobs in the U.S. What are their experiences with employment and earnings and do these vary by their background in Mexico? Do Mexican migrants fill different needs in different regional labor markets?

The data for this study are derived from the Pew Hispanic Center’s Survey of Mexican Migrants. A major goal of the survey, described in detail in Appendix 2, was to capture a large sample of recently arrived migrants. These tend to be young adults. The survey gathered responses from 4,836 Mexicans of whom about 1,500 were younger than 35 years old and had been in the U.S. for five years or less. The universe for the survey was Mexican adults applying for a matrícula consular, an identity document issued by Mexican diplomatic missions. The diplomatic missions chosen for the survey are located in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Raleigh and Fresno. Fieldwork was conducted from July 12, 2004, to Jan. 28, 2005. The survey featured a 12-page questionnaire designed to gather detailed information on the demographic characteristics, living arrangements, work experiences and attitudes toward immigration of adult Mexican migrants.

Respondents to the Survey of Mexican Migrants were not asked directly to specify their immigration status. However, slightly more than half of the respondents said they did not have any form of photo ID issued by a government agency in the U.S. The share of respondents saying they had no U.S.- issued identity documents was much higher among the more recently arrived—80% among those in the country for two years or less and 75% for those in the country for five years or less.

An applicant for a matrícula consular is not necessarily an unauthorized migrant. However, under normal circumstances, a legal immigrant 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 U.S. The survey data and other evidence suggest that a substantial share of the respondents, especially among those who are young and recently arrived, are in the U.S. without legal immigrant status. Thus, the Survey of Mexican Migrants presents a rare opportunity to analyze the economic status of a population that by its nature is exceptionally difficult to measure and study: Mexicans who live in the U.S. without proper documentation and in particular those who have been in the country for only a few years.

The analysis in this report is organized into three principal sections. Section 2 presents the economic background of Mexican workers before they migrated to the U.S. The transition of those workers into the U.S. labor market is analyzed in Section 3. Finally, Section 4 reports on the employment and earning experience of survey respondents after their arrival in the U.S. The report also has two appendices. The first highlights some key demographic characteristics of the respondents to the survey. Appendix 2 contains a detailed description of the Survey of Mexican Migrants.

A Note on Sample Size

The Survey of Mexican Migrants elicited a total of 4,836 responses. However, not all 4,836 respondents to the survey answered all questions. The statistics in this report are computed after omitting those with no responses to the questions at issue. Thus, the number of observations underlying the percentages reported in the paper varies depending on the topic. For example, 4,704 respondents out of the total sample of 4,836 reported their gender. The statistic that 59% of respondents are male is based on 4,704 responses. To take other examples, the cross-tabulation of U.S. ID and years in the U.S. is based on 4,351 valid responses to both questions and the cross-tabulation of survey city with state of origin in Mexico is derived from 4,818 responses. The implicit assumption is that non-responses are distributed in a random fashion and do not affect the computed proportions. This means, for example, that non-respondents to the gender question are not all male but, instead, males and females were similarly inclined to not answer the question on gender. Thus, if the gender of non-respondents somehow became known and was factored into the calculation, it would still be the case that 59% of the sample is male.

Another example arises from the analysis of the industry of employment in Mexico. There were 4,029 valid responses to the question on industry in Mexico. The respondents who failed to provide a valid answer to this question and other questions on industry and occupation generally resemble other respondents with respect to their gender, age and education. The non-respondents are slightly more male, a little older and somewhat better educated. These differences are small and it is likely that the (unknown) industry distribution of non-respondents resembles the industry distribution of those who gave a valid answer. In other words, it is unlikely that excluding the non-respondents from the tabulations unduly alters the result on the employment experiences of migrants.