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Going Back Home? Changing Demography and Geography of Mexican Return Migration


Return migration has been a constant feature of Mexico–US migration patterns, but its characteristics have changed sharply with time. We use the Mexican censuses and counts of 1995, 2000, 2010, and the complete set of individual and household records of the 2005 Population Count to explore the demographic characteristics of returnees in the context of tighter border control and rising levels of forced return migration. Involuntary and therefore unplanned return is likely to mean greater difficulties of incorporation into the community of origin. The study of the effects of the militarization of the US–Mexico border on migration patterns has focused on the US side. We contribute to this literature by focusing on the Mexican side. We consider the intensity and type of previous migration to the US as compared to current return migration, and State of origin and destination. Our data suggest that particularly attractive destinations for returnees are border cities, prosperous communities and growing metropolitan areas. Findings suggest changes in the demographic composition and geographic distribution of returnees. The discordance between the patterns of outmigration and return is a telling indicator of changes in the overall migration relationship between Mexico and the US. The patterns for 2005 are also observed in 2010 even if the absolute number of inter-censal returnees increased threefold over the period. Finally, we argue that focusing on destinations of return instead of areas of emigration will contribute to a more comprehensive understanding on the nature of future return migration to Mexico and its policy implications.

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  1. The benchmark is inexact since those returning by 2005, for example, may have been living in the US before 1995, suggesting that regions and places with a long migration tradition should have proportionately more return migrants.

  2. The DHS lists separately the number of inadmissible or deportable aliens who are returned. This is the only source of official US records on exits of Mexicans by year. For their classification, return is distinguished from deportation, which is based on an order of deportation and the DHS notes that most returns are Mexicans apprehended by the Border control who voluntarily agree to return. Returns have consistently been higher than deportations (based on an order). Multiple counting of an order of deportation/removal for the same individual in any 1 year can occur, but only between categories as when someone removed earlier without criminal charge seeks to return to the US and is then deported with a criminal charge—that of violating the earlier order of removal (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2010).

  3. Although returns captured in the census are not the same thing as returns captured by the DHS, they provide a benchmark for comparison between sources of data from both countries.

  4. The Population Count or Conteo is a mid-decennial census count of the entire Mexican population with a reduced questionnaire compared to the decennial censuses.

  5. The number of inter-censal returnees is likely to be underestimated by the fact that a proportion of deportees are likely to re-enter the US. Their re-emigration from Mexico is an indicator of the involuntariness of return associated with deportation. Another possible source of undercount is the fact that respondents in Mexican households may not declare that a member of the family was living in the US five years ago because they were deported and of the stigma associated to it. Again, this would support the claim of the involuntariness of return by deportation.

  6. For a discussion on the concept of preparedness, see Cassarino (2004).

  7. This analysis of US data uses residual methods or the matching method proposed by Van Hook et al. (2006) to estimate return migration, or the emigration of the foreign born. From the perspective of the US, it is impossible to talk to the geography of return in Mexico and limits to the estimations of the magnitude of return. For example, Hill and Wong (2005) have used jointly data from both countries studying from a binational perspective estimated age and gender distributions.

  8. We have no information on intra-censal migration during the period 2000–2005, but compared to the period 1995–2000, the period of 2005–2010 shows a decline in outmigration (from 1.47 to 0.99 million emigrants in the intra-censal period). A possible explanation for this could be related to the negative effects of the economic crisis and recession in the US and Mexico.

  9. After the publication of the 2010 Mexican census, the debate on the explanations for their impacts is likely to continue, especially because the 2010 census showed a dramatic increase of inter-censal migrants while Rendall et al. (2011) found that return declined over the 2005–2009 period using the ENOE. Passel and Cohn (2009) have argued that ENOE may over-represent return migrants who move to the US for short periods of time. The measures of return migration used by Rendall et al. and by the census are not comparable. The census measure is based on whether an individual returned from the US within a five year period, but does not count multiple returns by that individual in the period. ENOE reports a return within a 15 month period. The ENOE sample could thus capture up to four instances of a repeat return by an individual migrant within the census’s five year period. Migrants who make multiple trips to the US in a five year period will thus be oversampled by ENOE. One possible explanation for the decline in return migration showed by Rendall et al. (2011) is consequently a decline in circular migration by 2010, which is credible in face both of declining job opportunities in the US and the increasing security risks facing by migrants travelling to the northern border area. Another possible explanation is the underestimation of the return of complete households in ENOE, as explained in a recent report from Pew Hispanic Center (Passel et al. 2012).

  10. As noted by one of the anonymous reviewers, a possible explanation for the increase in the number of inter-censal returnees in 2010 is declining re-emigration over the period. Due to data limitations, it is impossible to compare re-emigration rates of inter-censal returnees over time. However, an alternative way of showing a decrease on re-emigration is by showing an increase in duration. Comparing data from 1995, 2000 and 2010 we see that the mean number of days of the duration of the trip of intra-censal returnees increased considerably from 414 to 442 to 620 days for those who left and came back in the periods 1990–1995, 1995–2000 and 2005–2010, respectively.

  11. Contrary to other data sources, the complete set of records of the 2005 Conteo provides us data that is representative at the locality level. For example, although the National Survey of Demographic Dynamics (ENADID) contains richer data and questions related to migration, it is only representative at the national, state and locality size level. Other survey data available present limitations in terms of their nationally representativeness or comparability with the census and other nationally representative data. For example, the Mexican Migration Project, a major effort of data collection, does not provide us with data that is representative of Mexico or its emigrants and returnees. The National Survey of Occupation and Employment (ENOE), a quarterly household survey recently used by Rendall et al. (2011) to study return migration, started in 2005 and is preceded by the National Survey of Employment (ENE) and National Survey of Urban Employment (ENEU) that capture a different migrant population in the time period we are studying. For a larger comparison between ENOE and ENADID, see Rendall et al. (2010), for a comparison between the Survey of Migration at the North Border of Mexico (EMIF) and ENADID, see Rendall et al. (2009).

  12. Of the 244,426 returnees, only 2.49 % live in collective dwellings and 199 are homeless. We will only include in the analysis at the individual and household level, non-institutionalized individuals, i.e. 238,331. The population of interest will be specified accordingly.

  13. The definition of a returnee as someone that was in the United States five years ago implies that we are limiting the study to recent returnees. This consideration should be taken into account when comparing this paper with others using other data sources; for example, studies using the Mexican Health and Aging Study (MHAS), a nationally representative, prospective panel study of Mexicans aged above 50 in 2000. Two-thirds of those male that had returned and are captured by the MHAS had done so 20 years ago or before.

  14. Other limitations of the data are that the data does not include place of birth, so some individuals considered as returnees may be American expatriates or previous migrants from Central America and other countries that are trying to re-enter the United States. The Population Count of 2005 does not have the date of departure and arrival, or the place of origin or last emigration so we cannot determine if they returned to the original place they departed from. Also, it does not include the question of cause of emigration like the 2000 Census.

  15. The intra-censal migrant could have moved to the US more than once during the 5 year period. However, the census only asks information (date of departure, date of return, etc.) about the last trip made during this period.

  16. The definition of a household changed in the 2010 Census. Previous data sources defined households based on the common consumption of food of the members that reside together. This allowed for multiple households residing in the same dwelling. However, the 2010 Census does not capture data any more at the household level and groups together all members living in the same dwelling. This is likely to affect the definition of unipersonal and extended households and non-kin living arrangements that are more likely to have different food expenditures.

  17. The 2010 Census limits the question to the members that were living in that dwelling 5 years ago. This is more likely to affect states and localities undercounting intra-censal migrants that may be more likely to move from one household to another before and/or after living in the United States.

  18. For a discussion on the coverage of Mexican migrants in census data, see Hill and Wong (2005) and Ibarraran and Lubotsky (2007).

  19. The emigration of complete households will lead to an underestimation of intra-censal outmigration. But for our analysis, the issue is whether the complete household emigration is disproportionately concentrated in certain places, thus underestimating the emigration from those places. Complete household emigration is likely when there are no subsistence opportunities in the community of origin, and is reinforced by the absence of extended family members to support those left behind. The first condition is more likely to occur in small, marginal rural communities and the second in cities. This balancing of precipitating factors makes it unlikely that complete household emigration varies by size of place, although this requires research.

  20. A proper rate of return should include in the denominator the whole set of population at risk to return. However, since our interest will be to calculate this rate at the state level, for this we would need to know the state of origin of the Mexican born population living in the United States and there is no US data source, to our knowledge, that gives a nationally representative estimation of the state of origin in Mexico.

  21. In order to maintain comparability with 2005, we do not distinguish by place of birth; thus, this includes people born in the United States. However, the immigration of U.S.-born individuals is strongly related to return migration. In 2010, 71 % of the U.S.-born individuals where actually living in Mexico with at least one Mexican parent in the same dwelling. In the period 2000–2010, the number of people born in the US duplicated from 342,000 to 740,000 and the proportion of minors increased from 73 % in 2000 to 77 % in 2010. The number of people born in the US who were living there 5 years before (counted with the inter-censal returnee population) almost tripled from 58,000 in 2000 to 152,000 in 2010. This increase was mainly due to the increase in the number of minors born in the US who arrived to Mexico in the five previous years.

  22. It is beyond the scope of this article to explain this increase. However, possible explanations could be related to the adverse economic situation, as well as an increase in deportations, an increase in return of documented migrants that went to the US temporarily or the return of green-card holders who have lived longer periods and can re-emigrate to the US in the future.

  23. These labels (“rate above” and “rate below”) are appropriate because of the way we are defining this rate. They differentiate the states that had greater or lower return migration in 2005 given the level of their out (non-return) migration in 2000.

  24. Since we are dealing with the universe of returnees, the differences reported are real not estimated ones.

  25. There could be a bias created with emigrant sons that returned to different places from which they left, so we could be inflating the return of sons in villages. In order to control for this and for families going back together to different places, these figures should be compared with the information of the 10 % sample of the 2000 Census.

  26. This result is even stronger if we remember that out migration from traditional states was very high in the past.

  27. The classification of rural and urban localities in Mexico is done with the population size of the locality. A rural locality is defined by INEGI if it has a population under 2,500 habitants. However, it is also common to use the 15,000 habitants’ cutoff to define a rural area, just like the authors do. The authors will use both for different purposes but will always specify the definition of rural locality that is used each time.

  28. The Migration Intensity Index (MII), and its categorical version (Degree of Migration Intensity) at the state and municipal level are generated by the Mexican Population Council (CONAPO). The MII includes information of the presence of remittances, emigrants, circular and return migrants (Tuirán, Fuentes and Ávila 2002). The Marginality Index (Índice de marginación) produced also by CONAPO is generated at the locality level using the technique of Principal Components and summarizes educational and dwelling characteristics at the state and locality level. The Degree of Marginality is the categorical version of the index (Anzaldo and Prado 2007). The index of marginality has been the indicator of social exclusion most often used in Mexico (Cortés 2002; Hernández and Székely 2005) and is our measure of poverty. The index of marginality differs with other definitions of poverty currently used in Mexico (Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social 2010) since it is more infrastructure based.

  29. Although the geographic pattern in 2005 and 2010 are similar, the reasons associated to those patterns are likely to be different. Conditions at the Northern Mexican border changed over the period 2005–2010 with an increase in violence and insecurity related to organized crime and narco traffic, and a decline in employment related to the global crisis of late 2000s and the decline of the maquiladora industry and business closures. As a result, there has been an increase in poverty related to earnings in the border states (Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social 2011). Although the border is less attractive for these reasons, increases in deportations may still counterbalance the adverse economic effects making returnees to spend some time there before trying to go back to the US.


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The authors would like to thank the Secretaría de Desarrollo Social (SEDESOL) for sharing the restricted data after the agreement between the University of Texas at Austin and SEDESOL, and the Population Research Center (PRC) at UT-Austin for allocating the data and providing technical computational support. Parts of the empirical research were funded through the C.B. Smith Sr. Chair in US-Mexico Relations # 1. Claudia Masferrer would like to thank the PRC and the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies for their support as a graduate trainee and graduate research assistant. C. M. was partially funded by Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología who granted financial support from 2007 to 2009 and by the Fonds Québécois de la Recherche sur la Societé et la Culture through the PBEEE award. Preliminary versions of this work were presented in 2009 at the Population Association of America meeting in Detroit, the Seminario Permanente de Estudios Migratorios del Occidente de Mexico held at CIESAS in Guadalajara, and at the conference “Migration during an era of restriction” held at UT-Austin. Earlier versions where presented in 2008 at the Joint Statistical Meetings in Denver and the conference “Mexico–U.S. Migration: Rural Transformation and Development” held at UT-Austin. We appreciate enormously the interesting comments and feedback provided by the participants in these meetings. We are grateful to Agustín Escobar and Jacqueline Hagan for reading complete versions of earlier manuscripts. Last but not least, we would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their careful revisions and recommendations.

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Correspondence to Claudia Masferrer.

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Masferrer, C., Roberts, B.R. Going Back Home? Changing Demography and Geography of Mexican Return Migration. Popul Res Policy Rev 31, 465–496 (2012).

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  • Return migration
  • Deportations and immigration enforcement
  • Mexico
  • United States
  • Emigration