December 6, 2005

Survey of Mexican Migrants, Part Three

I. Executive Summary

The vast majority of undocumented migrants from Mexico were gainfully employed before they left for the United States. Thus, failure to find work at home does not seem to be the primary reason that the estimated 6.3 million undocumented migrants from Mexico have come to the U.S. Policies aimed at reducing migration pressures by improving economic conditions in Mexico may also need to address factors such as wages, job quality, long-term prospects and perceptions of opportunity.

Once they arrive and pass through a relatively brief period of transition and adjustment, migrants have little trouble finding work. Family and social networks play a significant role in this; large shares of migrants report talking to people they know in the U.S. about job opportunities and living with relatives after arrival. They easily make transitions into new jobs, even though most find themselves working in industries that are new to them. Also, many are paid at minimum-wage levels or below, and it is not uncommon for these workers to experience relatively long spells of unemployment.

The demand for labor appears to play a strong role in shaping the economic destiny of Mexican migrants. Regardless of their background and origin in Mexico or their year of arrival, migrants are concentrated in the same handful of industries in the U.S.—agriculture, hospitality, construction and manufacturing. However, there are also signs of change in the characteristics of migrants and the nature of the demand for them. The more recently arrived and younger migrants from Mexico are better educated than their predecessors (though their education levels remain low by U.S. standards). They are also increasingly coming from a greater variety of regions in Mexico and making homes in new Mexican-migrant settlement areas in the U.S., such as New York and Raleigh, N.C. The latest arrivals are less likely to be farm workers and more likely to have a background in other industries, such as commerce and sales. More and more, Mexican migrants are being hired in the construction and hospitality industries in the U.S.

These findings emerge from the Pew Hispanic Center’s Survey of Mexican Migrants. The survey provides detailed information on the demographic characteristics, living arrangements, work experiences and attitudes toward immigration of 4,836 Mexican migrants who completed a 12- page questionnaire as they were applying for a matrícula consular, an identity document issued by Mexican diplomatic missions. Fieldwork was conducted in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Raleigh and Fresno, Calif., from July 12, 2004, to Jan. 28, 2005. While respondents were not asked directly to specify their immigration status, most are believed to lack authorization to work in the U.S. Thus, the survey provides a unique opportunity to study the economic status of a population that is otherwise very difficult to measure.

The major findings of this study are:

About the Report

This report is the third in a series of reports on findings from the Survey of Mexican Migrants. The first examined attitudes toward immigration and major demographic characteristics (Suro, 2005a), and the second covered attitudes about voting in Mexican elections (Suro, 2005b). A fourth study on banking and remittances and an additional report on gender and family structure are forthcoming. The completed reports are available at the Pew Hispanic Center Web site ( The full dataset of survey responses may also be downloaded from the Center’s Web site.

About the Survey

Fieldwork was conducted at Mexican consulates in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Raleigh and Fresno from July 12, 2004, to Jan. 28, 2005. A total of 4,836 individuals responded to a 12-page questionnaire in Spanish. All respondents were in the process of applying for a matrícula consular, an identity card issued by Mexican diplomatic missions. This was not a random survey but one designed to generate the maximum number of observations of Mexican migrants who were seeking further documentation of their identity in the United States. (For further details see the methodological appendix at the end of this report.)

The Pew Hispanic Center is an independent research organization, and it formulated the questionnaire and controlled all of the fieldwork and data preparation. The Center wishes to thank the Ministry of Foreign Relations of Mexico, the Institute for Mexicans Abroad and the Mexican consulates in the seven cities where the survey was conducted for permitting the fieldwork to take place on consular premises. The data and conclusions presented in this report are the exclusive responsibility of the Pew Hispanic Center and do not necessarily reflect the official views of either the foreign ministry or the government of Mexico.