Some analysts have suggested that migration to the United States has become increasingly feminine over time. Administrative data on the admissions of legal permanent residents from some of the larger sending countries support this view. There is evidence from household studies in some sending countries that also points to a larger proportion of females in migrant flows. The Census Bureau data examined in this report, however, lead to a different conclusion.

Studies that have examined the gender composition of legal immigrant inflows (legal permanent residents and refugees and those seeking asylum) show that females very often comprise a majority of arrivals and that they have historically accounted for the larger share of legal immigration. From 1930 to 1979, females accounted for 55% of all legal admissions to the United States (Houstoun, Kramer, and Barrett, 1984).

More recently, females have been less than a majority of legal admissions in some years, but that began to change in 1990. Since then, a rising share of legal admissions has been female (Zhou, 2002). Zhou reported that admissions in 1985 were 49.8% female. The female proportion of admissions dipped to 46.7% in fiscal year 1990 and then rose to 53.7% in fiscal year 1995 and 55.4% in fiscal year 2000.

Other studies that have assessed the characteristics of Mexican migrants to the United States have not reached uniform conclusions on the gender composition. These studies have generally relied on information gathered in Mexico from migrants who have returned from the U.S. rather than on data gathered in the U.S. on Mexican-born migrants living in the United States.

The Mexican Migration Project (MMP) is a series of ethno-surveys of Mexican communities conducted since 1987 under the direction of investigators at Princeton University and the University of Guadalajara. The MMP collects extensive information on the first and most recent trips to the U.S. of persons in a sample of households. The most recently available tabulations from the MMP reveal little change in the gender of all first-time migrants from these communities (Cerrutti and Massey, 2004). However, the mix of documented and undocumented migrants has changed over time in the MMP. Among undocumented migrants, the female share has risen from 11% of first-trips during 1965 to 1969 to 28% of first-trips during 1990 to 1995. Among first-time legal migrants there were sharp increases in the proportion of females between 1970 and 1974 and between 1990 and 1995. The increases in the 1990s may have resulted from the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). The 1986 law created the first sanctions against employers who hire illegal migrants and offered amnesties that eventually allowed some 3 million migrants to gain legal status and the right to citizenship. In the mid-1990’s, beneficiaries of the amnesties were able to start sponsoring family members and many subsequently received authorization to migrate legally.

Similarly, analyses of INS apprehensions data in the 1970s and 1980s suggest that male undocumented migration diminished but migration of women and children may have increased following the passage of IRCA (Bean et. al., 1990). The Encuesta Nacional de la Dinamica Demográfica, or ENADID, was a large nationally representative survey of Mexican labor migrants to the United States conducted in 1992. In addition to enumerating migrants who had returned to Mexico from the United States, ENADID included migrants residing in the United States as long as one household member remained behind in Mexico to report on them and considered the absent migrant to “normally” reside in the Mexican household. Analysis of ENADID revealed “remarkable continuity over time” in the gender composition of Mexican migrants (Durand, Massey, and Zenteno, 2001). This study supplemented the analysis of ENADID with matched samples from the U.S. Census of Mexican-born persons residing north of the border. The authors conclude that “women and children continue to be involved more or less as they were before.”

Forthcoming research from the Mexico/U.S. Migration Management Study Group, an academic research team funded by the William and Flora T. Hewlett Foundation and the Mexico’s Secretariat of Foreign Affairs, examines data from the U.S. Current Population Survey. The Current Population Survey is the monthly national household survey conducted by the Census Bureau. It is the source for the widely-watched national monthly unemployment rate figures and other labor force indicators. The research team’s analysis of the March CPS over several years between 1995 and 2002 (the March survey has a larger sample size) finds an increase in the female proportion of recent arrivals from Mexico. The female share of Mexican recent arrivals increased from 46% in 1995 to 50% in 2002 (Lowell, Pederzini, and Passel, forthcoming).

Small surveys of Mexican nationals conducted by the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC-San Diego provide modest evidence that the migrant flow is increasingly feminine (Marcelli and Cornelius, 2001). The surveys are conducted among households and businesses in Los Angeles and San Diego counties. The California surveys suggest an increase in the percentage of female migrants in the early 1990s, but they do not reveal if that change continued beyond IRCA legalization period.