The new geography of Mexican immigration

Jorge Durand, Douglas S. Massey, Chiara Capoferro

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

97 Scopus citations


Mexican immigration has never been spread evenly across the United States. Historically, a few key states, mostly in the southwest, attracted the large majority of immigrants from Mexico. This pattern of regional concentration was partly a matter of geography, of course. The four states that border Mexico-California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas- naturally assumed greater importance than others, in part because until 1848 they were part of Mexico. Even among border states, however, geography wasn't everything. Some states consistently outdrew others. One nonborder state, for example, Illinois, has for many years been an important destination. Economic and political factors have also played significant roles. What we undertake here is a descriptive analysis of the changing geography of Mexican immigration to the United States using representative census and survey data. Beginning early this century and continuing up to the present, we focus on four key periods: The classic era of open immigration before the restrictive policies of the 1920s; the Bracero era of 1942 to 1964, when the United States sponsored a large temporary worker program; the undocumented era, between the end of the Bracero Program and the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA); and the post-IRCA era, from 1987 to the present. The post-IRCA period has been one of notable change in the forces that promote and sustain Mexico-U.S. migration. First, the border has been selectively militarized (Dunn 1996; Andreas 2000; Nevins 2002). In the fifteen years leading up to 2000, the number of border patrol officers increased by 368 percent and the agency's budget increased by a factor of six. The expansion of the border patrol gathered particular force in the 1990s with the launching of Operation Blockade in El Paso in 1993 and Operation Gatekeeper in Tijuana in 1994. The selective hardening of the border in these two sectors deflected migratory flows away from the most popular destinations and toward crossing points in Arizona and New Mexico (Massey, Durand, and Malone 2002). At the same time that the militarization of the San Diego-Tijuana border drove up the costs of a California crossing, that state became relatively much less attractive as a potential destination. The post- Cold War recession hit southern California's economy particularly hard, raising rates of unemployment among both immigrants and natives and tarnishing the lure of U.S. jobs. The recession was also accompanied by an anti-immigrant backlash that culminated in the passage of Proposition 187 in 1994. This initiative sought to ban undocumented migrants from receiving public social services and required state and local officials to both verify a client's immigration status and report suspected undocumented migrants to INS officials. The rise in native hostility and the withering of economic opportunity combined to make California much less attractive a destination than it had been. A third change stemmed from IRCA's legalization programs, which ultimately granted legal permanent residence to some 2.3 million Mexicans between 1988 and 1992, the large majority of whom lived in California (Massey, Durand, and Malone 2002). In other words, just as political and economic conditions for Mexico were deteriorating in California, millions of Mexican migrants received green cards that allowed them freedom of mobility. Kristin Neuman and Marta Tienda (1994) documented a clear pattern of geographic mobility by newly legalized migrants away from areas of Mexican concentration. With documents in hand, they were suddenly free to leave historical Mexican enclaves in search of better opportunities elsewhere (Durand, Massey, and Parrado 1999). Finally, while the recession was slow to end in California the rest of the country quickly entered a sustained boom, which by the mid-1990s produced tight labor markets, rising wages, and improving work conditions in other regions. In the midwest, northeast, and southeast, New York Times correspondent Louis Uchitelle pointed out, regions that had never experienced significant immigration from Mexico, unemployment rates fell to record low levels, generating a sustained demand for unskilled and semi-skilled workers, whose real wages rose for the first time since 1973 (May 23, 1997). During the latter half of the 1990s, therefore, an unusual constellation of factors came together to push Mexican migrants away from traditional gateways in general and from California in particular: A dramatic increase in the costs and risks of border-crossing in San Diego, a deterioration of the Californian economy, a nasty anti-immigrant political mobilization there, the sudden granting of freedom of mobility to millions of former undocumented migrants, and the emergence of strong labor demand throughout the country. After describing our data and using them to describe historical patterns of Mexico-U.S. migration, we show the effect of these structural changes on the geography of Mexican immigration during the 1990s.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationNew Destinations
Subtitle of host publicationMexican Immigration in the United States
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages20
ISBN (Print)0871549883, 9780871549891
StatePublished - 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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