Explaining the Decline in Mexico-U.S. Migration: The Effect of the Great Recession


The rate of Mexico-U.S. migration has declined precipitously in recent years. From 25 migrants per thousand in 2005, the annual international migration rate for Mexican men dropped to 7 per thousand by 2012. If sustained, this low migration rate is likely to have a profound effect on the ethnic and national-origin composition of the U.S. population. This study examines the origins of the migration decline using a nationally representative panel survey of Mexican households. The results support an explanation that attributes a large part of the decline to lower labor demand for Mexican immigrants in the United States. Decreases in labor demand in industrial sectors that employ a large percentage of Mexican-born workers, such as construction, are found to be strongly associated with lower rates of migration for Mexican men. Second, changes in migrant selectivity are also consistent with an economic explanation for the decline in international migration. The largest declines in migration occurred precisely among the demographic groups most affected by the Great Recession: namely, economically active young men with low education. Results from the statistical analysis also show that the reduction in labor demand in key sectors of the U.S. economy resulted in a more positive educational selectivity of young migrants.

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  1. 1.

    Line-watch hours are obtained from the Mexican Migration Project National Level Supplementary Files (retrieved from

  2. 2.

    I also tested models using three alternative measures of immigration law enforcement. See the supplemental Online Resource 1 for a discussion of these alternative measures.

  3. 3.

    See footnote 4 for results of regression models for Mexican women.

  4. 4.

    During the period considered, women accounted for 21.1 % of all international migrants but only 12.6 % of migrants moving for work reasons. I tested the models presented in Table 3 using the sample of women in the ENOE. Women’s odds of migrating increased significantly with the overall rate of growth in GDP. However, women’s migration decisions were unaffected by specific labor market conditions in the United States.

  5. 5.

    The association between the economic indicators and the odds of migrating was found to be even stronger when shorter lags were used. For example, models that used the average employment levels during the previous year resulted in larger and more significant coefficients than those using average employment levels from two years before, suggesting that potential migrants are reacting rather quickly to changes in employment conditions.

  6. 6.

    Information for earlier and later years is not currently available from the U.S. Census Bureau (2007).

  7. 7.

    Although the percentage of workers employed in the top three sectors declined slightly between 2006 and 2011, the relative ranking of the top five employment sectors remained unchanged. Moreover, a further examination of the raw number of Mexican-born male workers employed in all sectors does not indicate that a decrease in employment in these top sectors was being compensated by increases in employment in other sectors. Changes in job gains in the top five sectors is therefore a good proxy for labor demand for Mexican immigrants.

  8. 8.

    Details of the BDM series are available online (

  9. 9.

    Information on Border Patrol staffing was retrieved online from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (

  10. 10.

    See Lindstrom and Lauster (2001), Hamilton and Villarreal (2011), and Villarreal and Blanchard (2013) for the use of this type of measure. Return migrants are all those who were living abroad five years prior to the census.

  11. 11.

    This decline in migration is roughly consistent with previous estimates by Passel et al. (2012: Table A2). Combining data from various sources, they estimated a decline in the total number of migrants form 550,000 in 2005 to 140,000 in 2010. This is equivalent to a decline of 76.6 % when adjusted for the slight increase in the size of the Mexican population during the same time period.

  12. 12.

    The effect of an additional child is given by the sum of the coefficient for the number of household members and the coefficient for the number of children.

  13. 13.

    I also tested alternative models comparing the three years before the recession (2005–2007) to the three years during the recession (2008–2010). The results were consistent with those presented in Table 4, specifically with respect to the changes in selectivity of migrants by age, education, and employment status.

  14. 14.

    Author’s calculations using the two samples.


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This research was supported by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (1 R03-HD080774). A version of this article was presented at the Population Association of America 2014 Annual Meeting, in Boston, MA.

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Correspondence to Andrés Villarreal.

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Villarreal, A. Explaining the Decline in Mexico-U.S. Migration: The Effect of the Great Recession. Demography 51, 2203–2228 (2014) doi:10.1007/s13524-014-0351-4

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  • International migration
  • Migrant selectivity
  • Great Recession
  • Mexico