In the past 10 years, a historical change occurred in migration flows within North America: specifically, Mexico–U.S. migration reached zero net migration. Alongside Mexican adults returning to their homeland was an unprecedented number of U.S.-born minors. Little is known about this massive migration of U.S. citizen children. We analyze Mexican census data from 2000 to 2015 to estimate the size and characteristics of the population of U.S.-born minors residing in Mexico. Between 2000 and 2010, the population of U.S.-born minors doubled to more than half a million. The population stabilized, aged, and became longer-term Mexican residents thereafter. The large majority of U.S.-born minors are primary school–aged. Although concentrated in the northern border and traditional migrant-sending regions, U.S.-born minors are distributed throughout Mexico. The majority of U.S.-born minors live in Mexico with two Mexican-born parents, but one-third are separated from one or both parents, and most of those separated from parents reside with grandparents. We interpret these trends in reference to the determinants of Mexico–U.S. migration, transnational and mixed-status families, and the future spatial and social mobility of U.S.-born minors living in Mexico.
Between 2000 and 2010, the population of U.S.-born minors living in Mexico doubled to more than half a million (Passel et al. 2012). This North-South migration of children—of U.S. citizen children—is unprecedented. In fact, the migration of U.S. citizen children to Mexico between 2000 and 2010 was so unexpected that Mexican and U.S. Census estimates of the size of youth populations in each country in 2010 were substantially off (García-Guerrero 2011; Jensen et al. 2018). Continued documentation of the size of the population of U.S.-born minors in Mexico is essential to generating accurate population counts and projections. Furthermore, the migration of U.S.-born minors raises untold questions about the determinants of Mexico–U.S. migration, the structure of mixed-status and transnational families, the integration of U.S.-born migrants into Mexican schools and communities, and the future mobility—both social and spatial—of young U.S. citizens with deep roots in both Mexico and the United States. But prior to asking in-depth questions of cause and consequence, demographic description is necessary to understand the scope of an unprecedented demographic phenomenon.
The literature on Mexico–U.S. migration has historically focused on male labor migrants and changes in family dynamics as a result of father absence. Although attention to female migrants has increased, we have a limited view of how children fit into the migration process. Prior research on U.S.-born minors in Mexico has primarily focused on their integration into the Mexican educational system (Glick and Yabiku 2016; Jacobo-Suárez 2017; Medina and Menjívar 2015; Vargas Valle 2015; Zúñiga and Hamann 2015). A recent report on the North American migration system included population counts of recently arrived U.S.-born minors in Mexico and found that the stock declined from 2010 to 2015 (Giorguli Saucedo et al. 2016), suggesting that the flow of migration may have stalled after 2010. Little else is known about the population of U.S.-born minors currently living in Mexico, including the full count of U.S.-born minors in Mexico in 2015.
In this research note, we document the size and characteristics of the population of U.S.-born minors living in Mexico using data from the 2000 and 2010 Mexican censuses and the 2015 Mexico Intercensal Survey. To better understand the migration flow, we examine the recency of arrival and the age structure of the stock of U.S.-born minors in Mexico. To understand settlement patterns, we describe the geographic distribution of U.S.-born minors across Mexican states as well as by recency across regions. Finally, to glean new insights about mixed-status and transnational families in Mexico, we analyze the household structure of U.S.-born minors in Mexico. Each of these descriptive findings set the stage for future research and action across a broad range of disciplines and topics, including on the causes of migration, the integration and outcomes of child migrants, policy, and service provision to this population. We conclude by elaborating on these themes.
We use harmonized data from the 10 % samples of the 2000 and 2010 Mexican censuses as well as the 2015 Mexico Intercensal Survey gathered by Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (INEGI) and obtained from IPUMS-International (Minnesota Population Center 2018). The 10 % samples of three censuses include 26,109 minors aged 0–17 who were born in the United States in 2000; 61,325 in 2010; and 54,309 in 2015. The samples contain nearly equal numbers of boys and girls. We identify “recent migrants” as U.S.-born minors aged 5–17 who arrived in Mexico between 1995–2000 (for 2000), 2005–2010 (for 2010), and 2010–2015 (for 2015), using place of residence five years prior to the survey. U.S.-born children under 5 years of age by definition arrived during these windows and are also considered recent migrants. We generate population estimates of the size of the population of U.S.-born minors from 2000–2015 by age, recency of migration, and state/region of residence in Mexico. For 2010 and 2015, we estimate the distribution of U.S.-born minors by the birthplace of parents and the relationship of the child to the household head.
Figure 1 shows rapid growth in the stock of U.S.-born minors living in Mexico between 2000 and 2010. In 2000, just over a quarter million (258,000) U.S.-born minors were in Mexico. This population increased to 570,000 in 2010, representing a 120 % increase over a 10-year period. The stock stabilized after 2010: 550,000 U.S.-born minors were counted in 2015. That year, almost one-half (47 %) of U.S.-born minors in Mexico reported Mexican citizenship; citizenship was not asked in the other survey years.
Over these periods, the distribution by recency of migration shifted as large numbers of U.S.-born migrants entered Mexico in the second half of the 2000s. In 2010, the majority of U.S.-born minors were recent arrivals; by 2015, the majority resided in Mexico five years prior. In analyses not shown, we examined the proportion of migrants who were in the United States one year prior using the 2009 and 2014 National Survey of Demographic Dynamics (ENADID).1 Recency of migration also declined by this measure: in 2009, 15.1 % of migrants were in the United States one year prior, compared with 8.7 % in 2014.
The population of U.S.-born minors in Mexico aged from 2000 to 2015 (Fig. 2). The stock of U.S.-born minors increased in all age groups from 2000 to 2010. From 2010 to 2015, the stock of 5- to 12-year-olds and 13- to 17-year-olds grew, but the stock of children under age 5 shrunk by almost one-half. The mean age of the population was 6.2 years in 2000, 7 years in 2010, and 8.6 years in 2015.
In all years, the Mexican states with the largest stocks of U.S.-born minors were Baja California, Chihuahua, and Tamaulipas in the northern border region, and Jalisco and Michoacán in the traditional region (Fig. 3). In spite of stabilization in the population at the national level after 2010, some Mexican states continued to experience growth in the stock of U.S.-born minors. For example, in Baja California, the population of U.S.-born minors grew from 75,000 in 2010 to 85,500 in 2015.
In all years, the largest stock of U.S.-born minors resided in the northern border region (Fig. 4).2 In 2015, 260,000 U.S.-born minors lived in the border region, 100,000 more than in the traditional region. The population of U.S.-born minors declined after 2010 in all regions except the southern/southeastern region, where the population grew between 2010 and 2015. All regions saw the stock of recently arrived U.S.-born minors shrink. Although the largest stocks of U.S.-born minors reside in the northern border and traditional regions, the rate of population growth of U.S.-born minors was fastest in the southern/southeastern and central regions. This increase in the nonrecent stocks might also be associated with different regional internal migration patterns upon arrival in Mexico. For example, fewer than one in four U.S.-born minors who were living in a northern state in 2000, 2010, or 2015 and were living in Mexico five years prior moved from one state to another. In the other regions, internal migration of the nonrecently arrived U.S.-born minors was higher (above 30 %) for the three periods, suggesting step-migration upon arrival.
In 2010 and 2015, a majority (58 % to 60 %) of U.S.-born minors and Mexican-born migrant minors lived with two Mexican-born parents, compared with 70 % of Mexican-born, nonmigrant minors (Table 1). More than one-third of U.S.-born minors and Mexican-born migrants in Mexico lived without one or both parents; fewer (28 %) Mexican-born nonmigrants lived without one or both parents, although parental absence was higher among recent Mexican returnees from the United States.3 Fewer than 1 in 10 U.S.-born minors in Mexico lived with a U.S.-born parent; the vast majority of these also lived with one Mexican-born parent. There was a relative increase of U.S.-born minors who arrived recently in Mexico living with a U.S. and Mexican parent from 2010 to 2015 (from 6.7 % to 11.1 %). Between 6 % and 10 % of Mexican minors lived in households with neither parent present. Among minors with neither parent present, U.S.-born minors were far more likely to live with a grandparent than were Mexican-born minors.
In this article, we provide the first demographic description of the size, growth, and characteristics of the population of U.S.-born minors in Mexico from 2000 to 2015. This population grew rapidly from 2000 to 2010 and stabilized thereafter. In 2015, more than one-half million U.S.-born minors were living in Mexico. As a result of stabilization, the population of U.S.-born minors in Mexico aged and became longer-term Mexican residents between 2010 and 2015. The population resided disproportionately in northern border and traditional migrant-sending regions, but it was nevertheless dispersed throughout Mexico. A full one-third of U.S.-born minors were separated from one or both parents, and the majority of these lived with a grandparent.
In the second half of the 2000s, the Great Recession led to high rates of return migration to Mexico (Villarreal 2014). At the same time that the U.S. economy was collapsing, the number of U.S. removals increased annually, peaking at 409,000 in 2012 (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2016). The extent to which the migration of U.S.-born minors reflects the economic motivations of their parents versus the impact of deportation is not known, but it seems clear that the confluence of economic crisis and immigration enforcement drove the migration of U.S.-born minors to Mexico in the second half of the 2000s.
The family structures of U.S.-born minors in Mexico complicate our understanding of the intersection of nationality and family. In the case of Mexico–U.S. migration, transnational families have historically involved parents leaving behind children in Mexico (Nobles 2013). In this instance, children were born in the United States of mostly Mexican-born parents and migrated to Mexico; one third of them are separated from at least one parent. Presumably some of these parents are in the United States. What do these new transnational family forms imply for binational systems of family support, the well-being of children, and family life itself? The concept of mixed-status families—families in the United States whose members hold different immigrant legal statuses—should be broadened to incorporate families in Mexico with at least one U.S. citizen member and should be studied to understand how the privileges of travel, immigration sponsorship, and other rights granted through U.S. citizenship affect family dynamics and mobility. If these children return to the United States, it is an open question whether they should be considered first- or second-generation immigrants. They may be the 1.5 generation’s opposite: second generation by birth but first generation by socialization.
Many U.S.-born minors return to new destinations in Mexico. The northern border is the predominant place of residence of U.S.-born minors, but only a small minority of migrants from Mexico to the United States originates from the border (Masferrer and Roberts 2012; Riosmena and Massey 2012). More research is needed to understand this step-migration pattern. Settlement in states along the U.S. border may reflect families’ desires to be close to the United States, their intent to remigrate, or economic opportunity in the region.
What does the future hold for this large group of U.S. citizens with deep roots in both Mexico and the United States? The majority of U.S.-born minors who have migrated to Mexico have yet to complete primary school. Recent research suggests that their integration into Mexican schools has not been without its challenges (Zúñiga 2013). U.S. citizens can return and live in the United States; they also have the ability to sponsor family members for immigration. It will be essential to observe the mobility of this truly binational population and to pursue the multiple research questions that these demographic patterns motivate.
This research was supported by a grant from SEDESOL-Conacyt (Award Number 2017-01-292077) and by UC MEXUS-Conacyt (Award Number CN-18-211). The authors are solely responsible for the content. We appreciate the comments and suggestions from the anonymous reviewers. We would like to thank Natalia Oropeza for her research assistance, and Víctor M. García-Guerrero for his guidance on data visualization.
The 2009 and 2014 ENADID data are representative at the national, rural-urban, and state level. However, the ENADID samples of U.S.-born minors are small (1,571 in 2009 and 1,865 in 2014).
Regional boundaries are displayed in the lower-left map of Fig. 3 and are defined in the figure’s note.
Father absence is more common: in 2010, 34.4 % of U.S.-born minors were not living with their father, and 11.6 % were not living with their mother (31.3 % and 10 %, respectively, in 2015).
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