This study has reported on the transition of migrant workers from Mexico into the U.S. labor market. The data for the study were obtained through interviews of migrants applying for the matrícula consular, an identity document issued by Mexican diplomatic missions. Many of the respondents have been in the U.S. for less than five years and most of these new arrivals lack a U.S. government-issued ID. Thus, the survey data provide a unique look at the economic background and status of migrants from Mexico who are believed to be in the U.S. without authorization.

Open unemployment does not appear to be the primary reason why large numbers of migrants are leaving Mexico for the U.S. with or without authorization. To the extent that lack of work is a factor in the decision to migrate, it is more likely that underemployment, not unemployment, is the main reason. Only five percent of the survey respondents who had entered the U.S. within the past two years were unemployed before they left Mexico. The migrant workers also share the education and industry characteristics of the labor force in Mexico. Overall, the economic background of these migrants indicates they are drawn not from the fringes but from the heart of Mexico’s labor force.

Extensive family and social networks help migrants find employment in the U.S. Unemployment among survey respondents is found to plunge rapidly within six months of arrival in the U.S. The fact that most of these workers lack a U.S. government-issued ID does not appear to be a hindrance in finding work. Many also successfully make transitions into new jobs in new industries for them. The low level of unemployment among migrant workers from Mexico points to a high level of demand for their services, and the strongest demand appears to be in agriculture, hospitality, construction and manufacturing. These four industries are the destination for about two-thirds of migrants responding to the survey regardless of their background in Mexico or year of arrival.

The characteristics of Mexican migrants are found to vary over time. The new arrivals are better educated than their predecessors, less likely to have a background in farming, and more likely to have come from different states within Mexico, such as Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla and Veracruz. Moreover, Mexican migrants are increasingly finding new areas of settlement in the U.S., such as New York, Atlanta and Raleigh. As a consequence, and in response to local demand, migrant workers are increasingly likely to be hired in the construction and hospitality industries in the U.S.

While survey respondents have been very successful in finding jobs in the U.S., the stability and quality of these jobs is in doubt. Unemployment spells lasting more than a month are not uncommon amongst these migrants and earnings for many are at or below the minimum wage. Workers with especially low wages include those who speak no English and those who do not have a U.S. government issued ID.

The importance of these factors diminishes over time and in combination with the influence of other factors wages of migrant workers increase steadily with years spent in the U.S. However, the possibility of a lengthy unemployment spell barely drops over time with little difference observed between migrants who have been in the U.S. for less than six months and those who entered the U.S. more than 10 years ago.