Forget about the Folks EMigrating from Mexico – Who’s IMmigrating?  And How’s That Working Out?

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

If you’ve been paying even the slightest attention to international news, you know there’s a very unpleasant situation on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and that U.S. pressure on Mexico has created a difficult situation on Mexico’s southern border with Central America – all so the U.S. can reduce, if not eliminate, migrants from south of the border.  But if you’re reading this in English in Mexico, you also know that foreigners visit Mexico.  Good numbers of them stay, and those numbers are increasing. 

It’s difficult, however, to count the foreigners who live in Mexico.  First, they have to respond to the decennial census, and many do not, sometimes because they are not properly documented, although that doesn’t seem to cause Mexico much angst.  Second, many foreigners live in Mexico for just under six months a year; these “snowbirds” are unlikely to be counted.  Third, there aren’t all that many immigrants in Mexico – less than 1% of the total population (Canada’s population is 21% foreigners, the U.S. is 13%).  

The census is conducted by INEGI (the National Institute of Statistics and Geography [Instituto Nacional de Estadisticas y Geografía]); the last one was in 2010.  INEGI updates those figures between censuses, and in 2017 estimated that there were 1,153,458 foreign-born people living in Mexico.  Unofficially, accounting for people who did not respond and/or are undocumented, the estimate is nearly 4,000,000, and it’s growing.  Even the official figure is about a 20% increase over the number for 2010, and 2010 was nearly double the finding of the 2000 census (492,617).

The vast majority (899,311 people, or 78%) were born in the United States (that figure was 89.4% in 2015).  The second largest group, 4.7%, were Guatemalans; they were followed by other groups from Spanish-speaking countries:  Spain (2.4%), Colombia (1.8%), Argentina (1.7%), Cuba (1.6%), Venezuela (1.4%), and Honduras (1.3%).  Canadians were the ninth-largest group of foreign-born residents (14,488, or 1.3%) and the French, who had ruled Mexico under the short-lived Second Mexican Empire (1861-67), came in tenth (12,212, or just over 1%).

A Brief History 

Until relatively recently, starting of course with the conquering Spaniards in the 16th century, Mexico has not been welcoming of immigration. Its earliest policy, in 1823, restricted permanent settlement and naturalization to Catholics; that went out in 1860 with legislation establishing freedom of religion.  Mexico restricted immigration from China starting in 1921, and Asian Indians in 1923; 1924 saw a restriction on working class blacks; gypsies were excluded in 1926.  Palestinians, Arabs, Syrians, Lebanese, Armenians, and Turks were excluded in 1927; Poles and Russians in 1929; Hungarians in 1934; various people of color, eastern Europeans, Africans, Jews, Middle-Easterners and East Asians (except the Japanese, who were considered “industrious”) were excluded in 1933-34.

Were all these people clamoring to get into Mexico?  No – Mexico actually attracted very little immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries, since it was embroiled in almost continuous warfare.  There was little arable land that was not already held by the rich and powerful, and not much of an industrial base to attract workers.  Then, with the conclusion of the Mexican revolution (1921), Mexico undertook the creation of its “mestizo nation” trying to incorporate more of its indigenous population into a modern society.  

According to sociologists David Fitzgerald and David Cook-Martin, Mexico could see the impact of early 20th-century immigration on its behemoth neighbor to the north and were not eager to admit any “huddled masses” or “wretched refuse” while they were busy trying to build the new Mexico.  The series of exclusionary measures, most not publicized, constituted an “elaborate system to ethnically select desired immigrants,” even though said immigrants never appeared (Culling the Masses:  The Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policy in the Americas, 2014).  

By 1947, racial discrimination was outlawed in Mexico, but immigration standards still favored “assimilable” foreigners, a qualification that remained until 1974.

The (Largely) Illegal American Influx

Why are Americans, Mexico’s largest immigrant group, moving to Mexico?  And illegally to boot?  (In 2015, INEGI’s between-census survey found that 91.2% of the Americans living in Mexico were doing so without proper documentation, an increase of 38% over the number for 2010.)  

Does Mexico deport these people?  Not so much. In comparison with the Trump administration’s efforts to deport “millions” of undocumented immigrants, Mexico deported 11,328 people between 2015 and 2017, all of whom had committed offenses, 723 of them for serious offenses involving drugs, guns, and violence.  In comparison, the Clinton administration (1993-2000) deported 12 million people, the Bush administration (2001-08) deported 10 million, and the Obama administration (2009-2016) deported 5 million; Obama concentrated on newly arrived people who had committed serious criminal offenses.  In its first full year in office (2108), the Trump administration deported 145,000 people who had any kind of criminal conviction, and another 111,000 for unspecified reasons.  At that rate, if Trump holds office for 8 years, he will deport 2,048,000 people, far lower than any of his predecessors.  

Nowadays, Americans are concentrated in destinations like Travel + Leisure’s “most beautiful city in the world,” San Miguel de Allende, where they constitute about 10% of the 100,000 population; there are about 35,000 Americans in Puerto Vallarta, 20,000 in Lake Chapala and more next door in Ajijic, Cuernavaca, Mazatlán, several places in Baja California, Merida, and Mexico City, where it’s said the chic Condesa neighborhood is majority American.  There are also substantial numbers of Americans located in the commercial centers strung across the northern part of the country (Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey, Saltillo).  The destinations get retirees, the commercial centers more employees of international offices of U.S. companies.  

“The Pickleball Invasion”

Despite the small proportion of foreign-born folks in Mexico’s population, they seem to exert an outsized impact wherever they come to rest.  While migrants from the U.S. comprise teleworkers with digital careers, employees of American companies, U.S. born children of returning Mexican families, and retirees, it’s those expat and snowbird retirees who, by bringing their culture with them, change the cultural dynamics of the places they live.  

American Studies professor Sheila Croucher studies “privileged mobility,” i.e., better-off U.S. citizens relocating to poorer Latin countries to preserve their resources (The Other Side of the Fence:  American Migrants in Mexico [2009]).  Interviewing people (pickleball players?) in San Miguel and Lake Chapala, Croucher finds that despite their intention to remain permanently in Mexico, whether full- or part-time, they generally resist “going native.”  In fact, they spend considerable effort on establishing conditions and practices that replicate and maintain connections to their lives in the U.S.  They watch American TV, shop in U.S. stores (Sam’s Club, Walmart, Home Depot, Office Depot), and eat American food (burgers and fries from MacDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s; Domino’s pizza; ice cream from Coldstone Creamery). 

In a chapter called “They Love Us Here!  Privileged Belonging in a Global World,” Croucher describes a conversation in Lake Chapala with members of the local chapter of the Thomas Paine Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.  She asked what the local people thought of the American presence along the lakeshore.  The reply?  “We are a national treasure!” Why?  “Because of all the money we bring into this country.”  

With money, of course, comes power.  Not, in this case, political power – expats and snowbirds exercise little or no influence over the opaque workings of any kind or level of Mexican government agencies or services.  The power to exert privilege, however, is quite something else; in the communities Crowder studied, “this privilege shapes the stories Americans tell about their lives in Mexico, they identities they construct for themselves, and those that they assign to others” – academic-speak for the idea that we use our position as immigrants in Mexico to define ourselves as smart and lucky to have figured out how to live well on less than it would cost at home, and to define Mexicans as our means to doing so:  “Forty new Americans here means forty new maid jobs.”  Being American was central to that identity for the people Crowder interviewed; as noted above, most did not have a documented status, and few were interested in becoming Mexican citizens.  Not many spoke Spanish, they watched bootlegged American television, and they socialized with other Americans.  Their comments, Crowder summarized, betrayed the naivete of the isolated and “echo[ed] colonial discourses of an earlier era,” discourse that touted what Kipling called the “white man’s burden” to provide jobs, promote education, and generally “modernize” the alien context.  Very few had genuine friendships with Mexicans.

That Bad, Huh?

Most probably not.  At less than 1% of the population, immigrants have a long way to go in reshaping Mexico.  Even their economic contribution is hardly playing a major role in underwriting Mexico’s $2.4 trillion economy (11th in the world rankings).  Expat Americans spend about $500 million in Mexico, or less than a quarter of 1% of the economy.  In 2017, Mexicans working in the United States (ipso facto paying U.S. taxes and contributing to Social Security and Unemployment) sent $26.1 billion back home – over 1% of the economy and 5,220 times the contribution of the immigrant expats.   

Moreover, the concentrations of expats throughout Oaxaca have not yet given rise to communities where speaking Spanish is unnecessary.  And perhaps Oaxaca is more interesting, and the people who are drawn to it are more interested, in terms of local culture.  

Of course, Huatulco has its gated communities, and we all make the trek down to Salina Cruz to go to Sam’s Club.  But so far, the balance of the local vs. immigrant/snowbird populations does not seem to have shifted out of whack – although we might keep that possibility in mind as we consider how, and who, we want to be as we live in Huatulco.