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Mexicans in the United States labour market

Alejandro Álvarez Bejar

A basic demographic complementarity is driving labour integration between the two countries.

Pictured: U.S. Secretary of Labour Hilda Solis and Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan

Photo: US Department of Labor
U.S. Secretary of Labour Hilda Solis and Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan speak about the success of co-operating with the Department of Labour, Dec. 2, 2010.

Almost 22 months after the recession officially ended, there are still 14.5 million unemployed workers in the U.S. In April 2011, the Department of Labour announced the general unemployment rate had declined to 8.8 per cent, its lowest level in two years. The department also indicated that recent job creation largely benefited two groups: white women and Hispanics, for whom unemployment fell by 0.2 and 0.3 per cent respectively.

These new jobs, largely unskilled and requiring little education, were mainly created in the service industries, restaurants, commerce and to a lesser extent, manufacturing. This confirms several economic restructuring trends in the U.S.: the service sector is beginning to overtake the industrial sector and skilled, well-paying jobs are being lost, while low-paying jobs multiply.

In the U.S., regional patterns of economic specialization have changed in step with the last decade’s drivers of growth: construction, services and manufacturing. All these activities have employed unskilled Mexican immigrant workers, who have not displaced American workers, but rather have taken jobs and salaries that the latter do not want. Mexican workers, in this way, met the demand for manpower during the pre-crisis expansion phase in the real estate and service sectors.

The U.S. economy is an enormously powerful magnet that has attracted undocumented workers from all over the world, in particular Mexicans, who form almost one quarter of the total influx of immigrants. This is the push behind the desire for a greater integration of the U.S. and Mexican labour markets.

In Mexico, first due to the World Bank’s structural adjustment programs, and then to the opening of borders and deregulation negotiated in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) —that affected mainly the agricultural sector and the commercial, financial and transportation sectors to a lesser extent—, millions of rural workers (six million people, according to the World Bank) were displaced and could not find jobs in Mexico. When they compared the difference in salaries between the two countries and heard that there was a demand for workers in the U.S., they decided to emigrate. However, this trend was partially reversed due to the 2008-2010 crisis and continuing economic problems which have caused immigration to decrease substantially.

The cross-border mobility of workers was not formally included in NAFTA, but the presence of millions of Mexicans in the U.S. indicates that integration has made strides in the labour market: in seven states, Mexican immigrants represent between 25 and 35 per cent of the labour force; in another five states they account for between 15 and 24.9 per cent of workers; and in six more states they make up between 10 and 14.9 per cent of the workforce.

Figure 1: Percentage of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. labour force at the regional and state level (2007)
Map of US showing percentage of Mexicans in the labour force in each state
Prepared by Angel David Fonseca with data from Bendixen & Associates.

There is a basic demographic complementarity that is driving this labour integration: the U.S. labour force is growing slowly (0.5 per cent per year) and is aging quickly (between 2000 and 2009, the percentage of workers older than 45 years of age increased from 39 to 44.5 per cent of the labour force), which was reflected, in the same period, in an increase of almost three million retired workers.

The Mexican workforce is relatively young, numerous and fairly well educated. The majority of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. are between 30 and 45 years of age and have an average of 10 years of education, while the average for their country of origin is only eight years. Moreover, the Mexican pool of workers is so large that there are now almost 13 million Mexicans in the U.S., half of which are undocumented. Between 2005 and 2010, according to the National Institute of Geography and Statistics (INEGI, in its Spanish acronym), a total of 455,587 Mexicans immigrated to the U.S., of which 38 per cent originate from towns and villages with populations of less than 2,000 inhabitants where the bulk of the emigrants are young people.

This integration process is not without problems. In the U.S. in 2007, 1,400 bills related to the employment of undocumented persons were debated in the legislature; in 2008, there were about 800 anti-immigration bills, and last year 346 rulings were issued condemning undocumented immigration. The use of the military is another border control strategy. Mexico’s National Immigration Institute recorded the deportation of more than 66,000 persons from the U.S. in February and March 2011. But it is the persistence of high levels of unemployment and the fear that they will continue that is now discouraging immigration from Mexico.

Thus, the Mexican presence in the U.S. labour market will continue to increase, but the process has not been and will not be linear and will be subject to regional and institutional economic dynamics in the U.S. and Mexico.

Alejandro Álvarez Bejar is a social economist, a full-time professor in the Faculty of Economics of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), and holds the Chair of Contemporary Mexican Studies at the Université de Montréal. His most recent lecture on labour markets is available at: http://www.cerium.ca/L-integration-des-Mexicains-dans

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