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Press Release · January 28, 1997

Vast Majority Of Mexican Immigrants To The United States Do Not Stay, Study Finds

Most Don't Remain Long Enough to Be Eligible for Social Services; Length of Stay Driven by Education Level, Employment and Legal Status

SAN FRANCISCO, California, January 28, 1997–Half of all immigrants to the United States from western Mexico return home within two years, and less than a third stay as long as ten years, according to a new study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). Among undocumented immigrants alone, the percentage of those who return is even higher.

The research effort, headed by researcher Belinda Reyes, is the first to examine how long immigrants from Mexico remain in California and the United States and the differences between those who stay and those who return home. Because western Mexico is the source of three-fifths of Mexican immigration to the United States, the results demonstrate that migration flows from Mexico are anything but the one-way process assumed in recent, highly-charged political debates.

“The majority of immigrants from western Mexico come here without family and stay only a short time,” explains Reyes. “The one-third who remain over the long-term are those with better-paying jobs and higher education levels–the most likely to succeed in the U.S. labor market.”

Because return migration levels are so high, most immigrants do not stay long enough to be eligible for social services, according to Reyes. While the recently enacted Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act of 1996–welfare reform–tightens eligibility requirements for legal immigrants, the new study indicates that nearly half of the documented Mexican immigrants did not stay in the United States long enough to apply for benefits even under the old, less stringent conditions.

Of the estimated 326,000 documented and undocumented immigrants from western Mexico who entered California each year between 1980 and 1990, less than a third–96,000–have stayed or will stay in the state more than ten years, the study found. Return rates are even more dramatic for undocumented immigrants alone. Roughly 214,000 undocumented immigrants from western Mexico entered the state per year between 1980 and 1990. Only 58,000 (or 27 percent) remained or will remain in California after ten years.

The report reveals sharp gender and socio-economic contrasts between those immigrants who stay in the United States and those who return to Mexico. Return rates are higher among men, those with little education and those who earn low wages. Within two years, 50 percent with less than an elementary school education and 70 percent of agricultural workers return to Mexico. Nearly 60 percent of unemployed immigrants return within their first year in the United States. Legal immigrants and those with better-paying jobs were the most likely to stay.

Although a relatively small percentage of immigrants stays in the United States for long periods, does a large percentage come and go repeatedly? The study shows that 42 percent made more than one trip, but only 14 percent moved more than four times. And more than 70 percent of the long-term settlers moved only once. Evidently, repeat migration does not lead to permanent settlement. Surprisingly, the study also found that most immigrants who moved multiple times were documented rather than undocumented.

“Without considering the substantial impact of return migration on the immigrant population in California and the nation, policymakers run the risk of making decisions based on inaccurate data or faulty assumptions,” Reyes concludes. “This is especially true in the debate over the costs of immigration: We must consider that while they can impose a net cost in any given year, immigrants may provide a long-term benefit as low-wage earners return to Mexico and those with a higher taxable income settle down in the U.S.”

The study–Dynamics of Immigration: Return Migration to Western Mexico–analyzed data from the Mexican Migration Project, collected by Douglas Massey and Jorge Durand. They conducted retrospective household surveys in six states of western Mexico and the United States between 1982 and 1993, which resulted in a sample of more than 42,000 people. Western Mexico–which includes the states of Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacan, Zacatecas and Nayarit–accounts for about 60 percent of Mexican immigrants to California and the United States.

Reyes’ study is the second pathbreaking PPIC report on California immigration trends in five months. A September 1996 study by researcher Hans Johnson was the first to measure annual changes in the net flow of undocumented immigrants to California.

The Public Policy Institute of California is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to nonpartisan research on economic, social, and political issues that affect California. David W. Lyon is President and CEO of PPIC.