Volume 46 Number 181,
April-June 2015
Migration from Mexico to the United States:
The Renewed Liberal Paradox of nafta

Genoveva Roldán *

Date received: September 2, 2014. Date accepted: January 9, 2015


This research aims to introduce some significant reflections on the theoretical and empirical trends and repercussions of the migration of Mexicans to the United States that have resulted from 20 years of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It is useful to explore this direction insofar as one of the agreement’s main purposes was to reduce migration flows, despite the fact that its formal structure did not refer to this migration system, the largest in the world. This exclusion was made based on the new wave of liberal policy, which said that the free movement of capital and goods across national borders would be accompanied by the containment of labor mobility, a concept theoretically backed by the neoclassical idea of the migration hump.

Keywords: Migration, laborers, labor mobility, liberal policy, labor markets.

We want to export more tomatoes
and fewer tomato pickers.

Carlos Salinas de Gortari


During the negotiations to include Mexico in the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement (ALC-EUCAN, 1989), which would later become the North American Free Trade Agreement (TLCAN-1994), the CUSFTA member countries were opposed to suggestions made by the Mexican government, which expressed a desire to include the issue of migration in the final structure of the agreement. Although resistance was strong, the topic was not ignored. On the contrary, analysis and debate on the features, conditions and impact of Mexican migration on the United States labor market, as well as what measures should be applied to mitigate this migration, played a central role in the negotiation process. In this setting, the goal was to promote the free circulation of capital and goods, but not labor. Then-President of Mexico Carlos Salinas de Gortari promised that when NAFTA was signed, the country would be in a position to export goods, rather than workers, as the epigraph at the beginning of this document reminds us.

Twenty years later and now that the Mexican economy has had time to adjust to the full economic liberalization ushered in by the agreement, it is both useful and essential – not to mention the purpose of this research – to track the footprint and theoretical and empirical impact of migration flows during this time period, immersed in the transformations that came with the development model that Mexico has implemented since the 1980s. In addition to institutionalizing integration with the United States, the ratification of NAFTA promoted deregulation and a new relationship between the State and markets, while making labor markets more flexible and precarious.

To explore this issue, this work contains two sections. The first provides a theoretical analysis and a paradigm to explain migration and why there is a need to stop migration through economic integration. The second presents major trends regarding Mexican labor mobility, and the circumstances and peculiarities of the past 20 years, as well as the scientific basis for these theories through a review of recent events. Finally, this work offers some conclusions.


The break with the post-war development model in the 1980s in the United States aimed to, among other purposes, regulate and reduce migration, which had been around for a century, and had gathered steam in the 1980s and 1990s, going from 936,000 people in 1970 to nearly 2.5 million in 1980 and almost doubling in 1990 to exceed 4.6 million (Yearbook of Migration and Remittances, 2014). Qualitatively, migration has become far more complex than it once was, as circular migration coexists alongside permanent migration, and jobs and points of origin and destination have become more diverse.

In this scenario, the United States rushed to enact a new immigration law. On November 6, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), also known as Simpson-Rodino, which would be an important precursor to the environment and conditions that would develop with NAFTA and Mexican labor migration. Three aspects of the IRCA were especially striking, two of which were two sides of the same coin. As its name indicates, it provided for the regularization of undocumented foreigners, with over two million Mexicans in this category. However, it made the ability to prove residency in the country a condition for a visa and supposed, erroneously, that the country's economic needs would be resolved with this regularization. It also underestimated the impact of the act on migration patterns. It was the first and perhaps last United States law that sought to address the contradictions generated by the combinations of the nation’s economic needs and laborers from the neighboring country, and took responsibility for the rights acquired therein.

In this case, besides the aspect of regularization, the act also solidified the institutionalization of discrimination and violence by migration officials (the border patrol) towards Mexicans. From 1987 to 1993, the IRCA provided the legal basis to reduce the flow of immigrants, at any cost, but not to eliminate it. Two Reports on Violations of the Human Rights of Mexican Migrant Workers in Transit to the United States, presented by the National Human Rights Commission of Mexico in 1991 and 1996, gave an account of the increased violence against Mexican immigrants.

These reports documented the rise in aggressions, telling of brutal beatings that led to irreversible injuries, the refusal of medical care in these incidents, people run over by official vehicles, the corralling and housing of immigrants in ravines and rivers, people being hit with flashlights and clubs or kicked by border patrollers, torture by leaving people in air conditioning during cold weather, sexual aggression, violence while people were handcuffed, subjection to degrading bodily searches, insults and, in more than a few cases, Mexicans who lost their lives at the hands of the border police. Two sides of the same coin: the regularization of a significant number of undocumented persons and violence (CNDH, 1991, 1996).

The third aspect of the law, which is essential to note, both because it was transcendent and had a major impact on the formulation of NAFTA and migration flows, is described in section 601, which stipulates the formation of a commission (Sandoval, 2000) in response to the need to achieve a new macro-level scenario that, in consultation with the governments of Mexico and other countries that send labor, would take up the task of finding solutions to mitigate illegal immigration to the United States. The Asencio Commission1 initially sought to respond to the following questions: a) What conditions contribute to illegal immigration? And b) What economic development initiatives could be undertaken in cooperation to alleviate migratory pressure? Despite the size of the region (the Western hemisphere), research efforts were centered in Mexico, in light of its importance in overall migration flows.

In support of the commission, former President Miguel de la Madrid named the National Population Council (Conapo) in Mexico, supported by academics at Colegio de México, as the counterpart of the Program for U.S. Mexican Policy Studies of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs of the University of Texas at Austin, directed by Sydney Weintraub, and the Center for U.S. Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego, led by Dr. Wayne Cornelius. These institutions conducted research to find the links between migration, trade, international debt and investment, as well as aspects such as industrialization and border infrastructure and the impact of migration on the national Hispanic outlook, among other topics. Their work carried on for three years and the final report was presented to the public in 1990, a direct contribution to the debates that would conclude with the signing of NAFTA. The report contained two central conclusions:

  1. “Although there are other important factors, the search for economic opportunity is the primary reason that unauthorized immigrants come to the United States.

  2. Paradoxically, while job-creating economic growth is the ultimate solution to reducing such migratory pressures, it tends, in the short-to-medium term, to add to these pressures by raising expectations and enhancing people's ability to migrate. Still, it is the only way to keep workers from crossing borders in search of greater economic opportunities” (Sandoval, 2001).

Pursuant to this diagnosis, the measures proposed to achieve the objective of containing the explosion of the labor force towards the United States referred to expanded trade between the sending and receiving countries as the last resort solution. In other words, the recommendation consisted of promoting greater economic integration between sending countries and the United States through free trade agreements. Specifically, it insisted that Mexico should heed the calls of international financial institutions to improve the infrastructure within the country, to become home to maquiladora factories, and remove existing impediments to foreign investment. The idea was that commercial opening and investment would bring growth and development to the Mexican economy, which would contain migration towards the United States.

It is clear that neoclassical thought was prevalent in this diagnosis of the migration situation. On the one hand, the report chose not to analyze the variable related to the structural needs of the United States economy, making the "primary motivation" for migration reside in individual decisions that were the result of wage disparities between the countries of origin and destination and the lack of opportunities in the agricultural sector. That is why the report pushed for free trade and investment and claimed that with time economic convergence would be achieved.

In keeping with this school of thought, migration flows would behave as explained by the migration hump theory.2 Authors such as Papademetriou (1991), Philip Martin and Edward Taylor (1995, 1996), debated the effects of development on migration, and believed that this curve begins at very low levels, reaches a peak and then begins to decline. This has generally been referred to as a migration hump, or the differentiated effects of the development process on migration, over time.

The migration hump is grounded in three basic suppositions, as described in the conclusions of the Asencio Commission: a) trade and migration are complementary in the short-term, b) both are substitutes in the long term and c) the duration and size of the migration hump are relatively small. The hypothesis is based on the argument that the transformations produced by trade liberalization contribute to increasing migration, for various reasons. On the one hand, there may be better conditions available for certain workers, which would allow them to accumulate new resources to be able to emigrate, because reforms give rise to unemployment in the least competitive sectors prior to the liberalization and because commercial integration generates and develops a solid system of transportation and communication between the countries. This in turn reduces the costs of travel and increases the net benefits of migration. Integration is also accompanied by agreements or worker recruitment and once migration flows are already in place, complex social and familial networks begin to form, which ensure that the impetus for this migration flow is maintained. All of these factors begin to lose importance over time, when some workers realize they can now access better wages in their home countries. Chart 1, below, depicts this situation.

The theoretical proposal of the migration hump also indicates that it tends to prevail as a function of three factors: a) if networks promote future migration, b) when there are job opportunities in other countries and c) as a result of the economic adjustments that go along with the liberalization process. The theory is considered consistent based on the experiences observed in the European integration process, where the continent managed to reduce Spanish, Italian and Portuguese migration following their integration into the European Union.


Chart 1. The Migration Hump

Source: Martin (2005).


This work does not aim to conduct a comparative analysis of the integration process of the European Union and NAFTA, much less evaluate the policies that have sought to reduce asymmetries within the European Union and which, in light of the 2008 crisis, have made clear the structural weaknesses of the economic convergence resulting from that integration. Nor does this work question the substantial differences between any two integration processes, which make it impossible to repeat the migration hump hypothesis in the integration process that emerged with NAFTA. However, with NAFTA, the essence of the basic tool used to close the gap between developed and underdeveloped countries was investment flowing into countries that traditionally supplied migrant workers. In the European Union, by contrast, a complex institutional framework (Structural Funds, Community Regional and Social Policies) were created to reduce some of these asymmetries.

Among the solutions proposed by the Asencio Commission and which were later incorporated into the NAFTA project, we must highlight a paradox that is both theoretical and related to public policy. Broadly speaking, it is striking that the increase in the free mobility of capital and goods over national borders has generally been accompanied by efforts to contain labor mobility, whether through integration projects, free trade agreements, border protections, immigration policy or socially xenophobic or racist actions.

In other works (Roldán, 2010), we have insisted that this liberal paradox does not have any existential or metaphysical significance, in the sense of Unamuno or Kierkegaard, in which paradox is the product of the peculiar condition of human nature, incapable of grasping and foreseeing, for logical and structural reasons, all events, and is obliged to make choices in apparently absurd situations that put its very existence at stake, but nor does it seem to merely reflect a simple contradiction in the logical discourse, like the famous paradox of the liar Epimenides, the Cretan.

The paradox of the liberal stance, with respect to the labor mobility of people heading towards the labor markets of other countries, despite its coherent formulation and in some cases correct appearance, expresses a position that does not fit with what would generally be expected of liberal thought. This paradox results from the fact that the principles of liberalism are an expression of the economic, political and social forces that have been at play both in its origins and current state, which is why it is ambivalent, dark and murky. From a theoretical perspective, economic liberalism has historically faced the contradiction of how to promote the free circulation of capital while denying, limiting or restricting, interchangeably, skilled or unskilled labor, with particular conditions of control and subjection.

This contradiction is the result of the fact that modern societies were consolidated around the political, racial, cultural, ideological, legal, territorial and obviously economic fortification of nation-States, as well as the search to forget multiracial origins. Simultaneously, however, since its gestation, it has been clear that in light of the powers of the economic system, in terms of consolidation and expansion, national markets of goods, capital and labor would not be enough. Labor mobility maintains a direct relationship with the capital/labor contradictions of destination countries, and sheds light on issues related to wages, labor conditions, housing, transportation and health, which are exacerbated by retrograde postures and reworked as a native labor/immigrant labor contradiction, where the latter group is blamed for economic, political and social instability.

This research does not aim to provide a historical overview of the paradox of liberal thought and its varyingly moderate and outright rejection of the international mobility of labor. It is enough to keep in mind that with the expansion of Mexican immigration, both documented and undocumented, the liberal paradox was reawakened. United States society and politicians also began to once again emphatically reject the immigration increase, referring to the wave as the invasion of the illegals or the silent invasion. Eight columns in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner published since August 8, 1977 declared that, "The State is threatened by hordes of foreigners."

Concern regarding the nature and impact of the increase of undocumented immigrants brought together religious, civil, ethnic and minority groups, social service agencies and various sectors of Congress, in a situation in which the economic recovery achieved did not mirror the post-war economic recovery, as it gave rise to a long period of unstable growth, which needed to find a scapegoat.

Mexican immigrants, among others, became the target of sharp criticism and were charged with some of the economic ills and contradictions, such as the trend towards stagnating family income, low wages, crime, contagious diseases and the deterioration of social services. This analysis is only partial however, considering that there were not only declarations of discontent towards Mexicans, but also the voices of farmers and even some corporate sectors represented in Congress, which insisted on the need of opening the doors to this migration flow, based on their well-demonstrated capacity for labor.

Neither position was new. Historically, this quintessential country of immigrants has constantly expressed, and sometimes rather violently, fear of “excessive” immigration, not only towards Mexicans, but also to other groups, such as the Germans who arrived at the end of the eighteenth century. Benjamin Franklin wondered: “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous so as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion?” (Martin, 2007). On the contrary, during congressional hearings on immigration in 1926, it was stated that farmers required cheaper labor than what they could find, and Mexican workers precisely met those conditions (Audiencias del Congreso, 1926).

These opposing criteria persisted over time and were expressed again in 1971 when the topic was taken up again during Congressional Hearings, with a barrage of proposals to reform the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 and the Immigration Act of 1965. In 1972, Representative Peter Rodino introduced a bill to make the employment of undocumented workers a crime and impose penalties on employers. It was approved by the House of Representatives but rejected by the Senate. The issue provoked widespread debate and made evident how difficult it would be to reconcile these two postures, giving rise to slow legislative processes with delayed actions, even as migration flows continued to rise.

The predominance of anti-immigration sentiment came to a head in 1976, when the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act was once again amended by Congressional approval of Law 94-571, popularly known as the Eilberg Bill (Western Hemisphere Act). President Ford signed the law and admitted that it would have negative effects on Mexico, by establishing a quantitative limit of 20,000 permanent residency visas for all countries of the American continent, reducing documented Mexican immigration by 60%. However, the loophole that continued to allow Mexican immigration to grow was that no proposal to impose penalties on the demand of United States companies for undocumented labor was approved. The amendment thus confirmed a free pass for hiring, and bosses resorted to old and new networks, as well as those built by immigrants themselves, to meet their labor market needs.

Soon after the amendment was approved, the debate was opened once again when in 1977 President Jimmy Carter introduced an executive plan to Congress to “reinforce the borders of the country,” which included measures to placate business interests and soften public resentment. Employers were offered labor without the need to provide labor benefits or rights for temporary workers. The public, hostile towards immigrants, was promised more effective measures of control and that undocumented immigrants would be deported (Maciel and Herrera, 1999).

The purpose of the account provided above is to highlight the existence and rise of anti-immigration discourse and public policies in the final three decades of the twentieth century, which is when Mexican migration jumped significantly, as well as the support found in orthodox neoclassical thought for this discourse. Notable authors such as G. Borjas and O. Stark focused their research on the supposed effects of migration on destination countries, using methodological tools developed in models by Bwagwati, Saajastad, Srinivasan, Ramaswami and Mundell, who in turn based their work on the standard Hecksher-Ohlin-Samuelson model. Their goal was to analyze the labor market of host countries even more directly to conclude that the effects in terms of benefits generated by this mobility are low and can be described by the concept of the immigration surplus, which is obtained by comparing the income generated by native factors before and after immigration.

This rational choice approach, in which individuals are the unit of analysis, was also complicated by incorporating the effects of scale and the externalities that result in the increased cost of migration due to cultural, social and lifestyle differences, as well as the externalities that arise from the knowledge and skills of the laborer, in other words, the level of "human capital” involved in the labor mobility. They also assume that migration will cause immigrant remuneration to be transferred to the sending country through remittances, which means losses for the product of the country receiving the immigrants. This also assumes that the transfer involves total income.

These models began to insist on the negative aspects resulting from immigration, such as: the reduction of wages for laborers with similar qualifications, based on the assumption of full employment and, if there is no labor market flexibility, immigration would bring with it a second negative aspect, a rise in unemployment. The outcomes of these models have been questioned by empirical research that has demonstrated that international labor mobility has had no impact on rising unemployment in countries receiving the labor force, and that the wage impact has been minimal, clearly revealing that these models are not very explanatory of international labor mobility.

The “new economy” of international labor mobility is characterized by the orthodox proposals of neoclassical thought. Although it maintains the analytical relationship between migration and development, it reduces the scope of analysis to microeconomics by considering that the variables in this relationship have more to do with the micro-level associations of decision-making and the existence of market "failures" linked to a “pre-capitalist” mode of production, which means that these “failures” are located at the sector or local level, that is, they are phenomena divorced from the economic whole and they are non-temporal.

International labor mobility as a mechanism to diversify risks implies the idea that wage differences are not necessarily a condition for it to occur. Moreover, even in the absence of these wage differences, this mobility can continue. The concept of rational choice is affirmed and deepened, attributing it to families, which are seen as “investment portfolios" that make isolated rational choices pursuant to the conditions in which market failures are related to their activities.

In these models, migration is explained by a strange interconnection of factors marked by supposed economic rationalism, almost voluntary, expressed in the idea that families calculate benefits, which allow them to “choose with good criteria,” in such a way that the Mexicans that emigrate to the United States are those members that likely will have higher net income earnings, where the "common enemy" of the family nucleus is "the entire distribution of a set of families."

This economic “rationality" is linked with terrible subjectivity based on psychological suppositions, which are the principles of marginalist economics that suppose the celebration of “implicit intra-family contracts,” “inter-family comparisons,” “relative deprivation,” understood as the feelings brought about the inequalities existing between groups. That is why Oded Stark wrote, in response to a proposal by Runciman on the selfishness of the individual, where transfers to families are explicit: “The more people a man sees promoted when he is not promoted himself, the more people he may compare himself with in a situation where the comparison will make him feel deprived” (Stark, 1993: 147).

The development and spread of new econometric techniques proved that optimization is achieved with the free mobility of goods, capital and laborers, as long as they are high in “human capital.” These theories conclude that labor mobility for jobs that do not require educational skills is not optimal. This brief review of neoclassical thought demonstrates that the paradox of liberalism has been updated and expressed in the evident discrimination against mobility, but only that of the "labor" factor, directed towards unskilled jobs.

The solutions offered by NAFTA match that theoretical perspective, which offers a framework for contemporary migration policies, in terms of the possibility to eliminate the exportation of people and transform the Mexican economy into an exporter of commodities, because it considers that the flow of goods and financial resources between the countries, with differing degrees of economic factors, is a nearly perfect substitute for the mobility of the labor force in the short, medium and long-term, through the level of the prices of goods and factors which, in the end, reduces the incentives that sustain migration. The economic development that would put a stop to migration would happen through commercial liberalization and investment. That was the solution set forth by NAFTA, manifest in the agreement's preamble:

“…create new employment opportunities and improve working conditions and living standards in their respective territories.”3

When Mexico joined NAFTA, it was seen as the "natural" outcome of the nation's inclusion in global production, trade and investment dynamics. This can help explain its widespread acceptance, despite the fact that it was based on assumptions that failed to recognize existing asymmetries, both historical and structural, as well as those that would arise or become further aggravated as a result of this integration.


To fully understand all of the trends related to the United States-Mexico migration system over the past two decades would go beyond the scope of this work. All of the perspectives required to build this knowledge would be diverse, complex, multidimensional and interdisciplinary. With that said, based on the initially proposed objectives, this work will prioritize certain aspects related to one of the central purposes of NAFTA: substantially reduce migration flows. As such, this work will set aside aspects related to remittances, their economic, political, social and cultural meaning, migration policies implemented in this time period by both countries, the issue of human rights violations and the meaning of the incorporation of the indigenous population, youth and children to migration flows, to name a few.

Now that this has been clarified, and keeping in mind that migration trends are closely related to the restructuring of the economic model that has been going on for over three decades now, the balance of these 20 years depicts Mexican emigration to the United States. Far from having been reduced, it has become the largest bilateral migration system on the planet, involving over 33.5 million people, with just over 35% born in Mexico and 65% of Mexican descent (Pew Hispanic Center, 2014). The big wave began in the 1980s, as mentioned early on in this work, and was maintained until the early years of the 2000s. Between 1960 and 1970, the growth rate was 53%, while it peaked at 157% in 1970-1980, hit 93% in 1980-1990, 100% in 1990-2000 and settled at 24% from 2000 to 2010. For increases in absolute terms, see Figure 1.


Figure 1. Mexican Immigrants in the United States 1970-2013

Source: Created by the author based on the Yearbook of Migration and Remittances, Mexico 2014, BBVA Research.


The primary explanation for this strong push was the notable expansion of the United States labor market. In early stages, this migration was fundamentally destined for agriculture and the harvest of diverse products, and was limited as temporary labor or because the migrants returned home. These dynamics are rather different than what happened with the services and trade sectors, the construction industry and manufacturing, as migration’s involvement with the agriculture sector fell.

These other types of activities made it difficult for migrants to return home to their countries of origin. This, in combination with tougher migration policies, has led the resident population of Mexican immigrants to become less likely to engage in circular migration. In this period, the returning population fell from 55% in 1987-1992 to 46% in 1997-2002 (Tuirán, 2006) and to 32% in the period 2005-2010. The increase in violence in which this migration has been embroiled failed to achieve the objectives proposed regarding reductions, but has affected circular migration. Once migrants cross into the United States territory, there is less chance to come and go for short time periods because of the mortal risks involved in crossing the border.

Another distinctive aspect of contemporary migration is the increase in undocumented immigration. In the first half of the 1980s, the number of Mexicans without papers in the United States was 18 out of every 100, while by 2005, only 15 of every 100 had the required documentation. According to data from the Pew Hispanic Center (2013), the majority of illegal immigration to the United States comes from Mexico. This type of migration grew significantly, reaching a record high of nearly 7 million people in 2007, six times higher than the number recorded in 1990 (1.4 million people).

It should be noted that after 2007, the number of irregular immigrants fell, reaching 6 million people in 2012, largely related to the effects of the financial crisis on jobs for the migrant population. Various international forums, journalists and academics insist on avoiding the concept of illegal immigrant, a category that has legal and political implications quite different from those that characterize labor immigrants, who should not be called criminals and whose activities should not be criminalized. No human being is illegal for searching for work, their failure is rather administrative.

Multiple studies have also revealed that migrants are increasingly female, evidence of an important qualitative change in the trends of the migration system. Women are no longer primarily companions, but are rather migrating on their own. In 2013, women accounted for 47% of this population group (Conapo, 2013). However, this rate is not reflected in the percentage of females in the employed population. In fact, 70% of Mexicans working in the United States in 2005 were male (CPS), and although this figure did change by 2013, it was not substantial, as 61% of the economically active population continued to be male (Conapo, 2013). According to data provided by the Pew Hispanic Center on undocumented Mexicans, 95% of men were actively involved in the labor market, while only 54% of undocumented women were, and of those who have documentation and were born in Mexico, only 52% were working in 2013. We should pay special mind to the fact that the patterns of labor insertion of Mexican women reveal higher selectivity (Giorguli and Gaspar, 2006). Of those who work, 80% do so in activities in which their presence is invisible: cleaning, child care and domestic services, to name a few (see Figure 2) and this pattern is closely related to the overall restructuring of the United States economy and society.


Figure 2. Mexican Immigrants in the United States by Occupation and Gender 2013 (%)

Source: Latino Decisions, Everything Latino Politics, 2013.


Looking at the new geography of migration that has emerged from this age, it is notable that both sides of the border have been affected, with changes in both the Mexican territory as well as the destination country. In the land of origin, the nine “traditional” source states (Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, Colima, Zacatecas, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Aguascalientes) have been joined by states in the central and southern regions of the country: the north of Guerrero, the southeast of Puebla, the zone of Mixteca, Mexico City, the State of Mexico, Chiapas and Veracruz have all contributed to migration flows.

From the early years until the 1980s, Mexican migrants in the United States were mainly concentrated in the Southwest states: California, Texas and Arizona. The economic restructuring of the 1980s was also accompanied by geographic shifts in migration, giving rise to an extremely rapid spread outwards, although the original states still maintained high concentrations. According to Conapo data, the majority of Mexican migrants still reside in California (34%), Texas (20%) and Arizona (5.1%), traditional states for these populations. However, Mexican migrants are also found in other states, such as Illinois (5.3%), North Carolina (2.2%), Georgia (2.1%), Florida (2.1%), Washington and New York (1.9% and 1.8%, respectively).

After examining the trends surrounding the phenomenon of migration, it becomes clear that the diagnosis presented by the Asencio Commission, as well as the expectations of NAFTA negotiators, with respect to containing migration, is far from reality. These efforts have been a resounding failure.

There are multiple explanations for the increase in the number of Mexican immigrants: the end of the Braceros Agreements and the consolidation of this phenomenon in some states throughout Mexico that were traditionally source states, social networks of support woven within migration flows, the widespread and profound crisis of the agricultural and livestock sector that sidelined the incorporation of the populations of other states to this flow. But the ultimate explanation behind these causes is the renewed and growing structural incapacity of the Mexican economy to offer jobs and better wages to its population.

In the end, all of these conditions can be grouped into or attributed to the context of the Mexican economy, to one side of the coin. But in the causes that led to the strong increase in migration, we find evidence of transformations in the United States labor market, especially from a perspective opposed to the liberal paradigm and its new manifestations. These transformations are embroiled in the profound economic, social and political changes that led to the 1970s crisis worldwide and marked the end of a long era of post-war economic growth.

These changes in the labor market, among others, have produced significant consequences for the native and immigrant labor class that comprises the labor market and has become the basis for recovery. These transformations in the 1980s, with the recovery, drove the United States labor markets, helping the country maintain a dynamic that produced jobs despite unstable growth.

As Castells (2003: 250) wrote, in the 1980s, the number of jobs rose by nearly 20% and economic activity was maintained, although at a lower rate, in the decade to follow. Economic activity became more concentrated and jobs were increasingly in the services sector, the majority part-time and not unionized. As more women joined the labor market, the workforce that had been relegated to the manufacturing industry had to reorganize, leaving open the most undervalued and unskilled jobs in the sector, which began to be filled mainly with Mexican migrant workers, whether documented or not. The new high technology services sector not only demanded specialized and well-paid workers, but also required a considerable number of poorly paid laborers, both natives and immigrates, further deepening the stratification of the labor force.

Job growth in the services sector in the United States between 1979 and 1993 meant that in this sector alone, 23.8 million new jobs were created. In California alone in the 1980s, 500,000 jobs were created in the cleaning sector (janitors), the majority of which were part-time. Highly specialized jobs were also created, and in 1992, 10 of the 30 top information technology companies in the United States were located in California. "Nearly 1 in 500 of the top 2,500 electronics companies in the country are located here” (Siegel, 1995: 153). In this new and changed context, San Diego, California was especially notable as a source of job creation; in the period 1973-1979, the city generated over 5% annually, and in 1980, the figure was still above 4% (Cusminsky, 1995).

These conditions spread to other states in the United States, allowing the economy to absorb the much of the natural increase in its economically active population (EAP), relocate the majority of people displaced from the manufacturing industry and also gave rise to the increase in volume and the heterogeneity that characterized immigration in general and especially Mexican immigration, which, in those years, was the principal supplier of cheap labor, a declaration confirmed in the Statistics Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in 1986, and also began to displace immigration of European origin, especially out of Germany. This increase in immigration was not to the detriment of native employment, as neoclassical thought and detractors of immigration would suggest. On the contrary, the two have been complementary, as demonstrated in Figure 3.

The assumptions of new liberalism when interpreting migration are profoundly ideological and political, which lead to the idea that migration is the result of individual decisions, in such a way that the catalyst for migration is located in countries from which the workers come, in this case Mexico, and it is necessary to address this. The will to migrate as an ontological principle is taken as a point of departure that, as a last resort, explains reality and the freedom to choose to migrate without external precepts or forces that pressure people or restrict their movement, besides that which is intrinsic: economic rationality.


Figure 3. Mexican Migration and the Employment Rate Trend Line
in the United States (1990-2012)

Source: Created by the author based on data from the Pew Hispanic Center, 2013,
Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, 2014 and the Yearbook
of Migration and Remittances, BBVA Research, 2014.


The predominance of common sense in overall society, as well as in migrants themselves, has simplified the causes and distorted the origins, concealing the profound complexity that permeates the evolution and real expressions of this phenomenon. As Saskia Sassen (2007) wrote, although many immigrants believe that migration is the result of their personal decisions, the choice to migrate in and of itself is a social product. Neoclassical thought ignores the unequal relationships and dependence that dominate the international economy in general, and especially the relationship between Mexico and the United States. Far from fading, this inequality has only deepened in the age of globalization, integration and trade liberalization.

The directions, specificities and principal expressions of capitalist reproduction processes are defined in hegemonic countries, and this is also the case for the emigration of a labor force from other nations that ends up contributing to their development. "More than a simple game of supply and demand, as trumpeted by the artifices of the neoliberal model, this process is embroiled in the strategies of international monopolistic capital to overexploit the workforce of peripheral countries at an immeasurable cost to these nations and regions of origin” (Delgado and Márquez, 2011: 16). The fact that the Mexican economy is both complemented by and subordinate to the United States economy is also present in the issue of migration.

NAFTA is part of a growth model that assigns trade, investment and liberalization an essential role, making them out to be the supposed “motors of development” to take advantage of investments, new technologies and to reduce the migration flow, as designed in the Asencio Commission. However, the success of change in trade specialization based on this model, which includes NAFTA, has not produced similar effects for the overall economy, especially for some variables, such as jobs. In this way, evaluating export success requires greater caution, as does the need to establish the relationship between export growth and economic growth, which allows us to examine the carryover effects of the export sector on the overall economy, as well as its impact on the internal heterogeneity of the economy and the historical weaknesses of the labor market.

The fragility of the link between export capacity and growth has had a strong impact on the absorption of the Mexican workforce, wages and income distribution. Specifically, market weaknesses have only deepened and real formal sector wages have only increased minimally. There has also been an increase in open unemployment, weak growth of labor productivity, reduced social security coverage, the widening of the wage gap between incomes in the formal and informal sectors and the consequent intensification of migration flows. These have become solid arguments to explain the continuity and increase of the mobility of Mexican workers at the international level, who have responded to a demand from the United States for low-skilled workers.

Raúl Delgado Wise and Humberto Márquez Delgado (2007: 13) wrote the following of the project implemented in Mexico: “Far from responding to a free trade model that would be beneficial to both countries, these policies have unleashed new production relations, which, in turn, have led to a new mode of unequal exchange, placing Mexico in the role of the specialized supplier of natural resources and especially cheap labor." As the ECLAC Report on Migration and Development (December 2008: 12) indicated, from a regional perspective, "Latin America has become an ‘exporter’ of workers abroad.”

Up until 2005, 45 Mexicans set off from their country to the United States every hour. It is worthwhile to ask, as does the UNDP Report on Migration and Human Development: Is migration a free choice or is it the only option available? Surveys administered to immigrants reveal that they migrate as a result of asymmetrical salaries, segmentation and exclusion from the labor market in Mexico, which does not offer many options. It is therefore not a free choice, because the options available are not equal. If we add to this factors such as the proximity, history and existence of networks, both of employers and immigrants, it is clear why a significant number of Mexicans have chosen to migrate.

According to figures from the Pew Hispanic Center, although the flow of Mexican migration did not stop in 2012, there are signs that it is slowing down, corroborating that migration flows are set off by the conditions of the United States economy and society, which are complementary to the conditions and low capacity of absorption of Mexican labor markets. The explanation for the fall in migration therefore does not reside in significant economic growth, increased wages or better job opportunities in Mexico but rather in the fragility of labor markets, the outbreak of the 2008 crisis in the United States and tougher migration policies to protect jobs.


Mexican emigration to the United States has created the largest bilateral migration system on the planet. This reality is far from the proposals of the Asencio Commission, NAFTA or the behavior described by the migration hump theory.

The accelerated growth of both documented and undocumented migration over these past 20 years can be explained in part by transformations in the Mexican economy and the signing of NAFTA, but was really catalyzed by structural modifications in the workings of the United States economy, the features of labor market segmentation and the stratification of the national and immigrant workforces, following the 1970s crisis, which sparked the migration of Mexicans to the United States. These processes can explain the growth and increased complexity of this migration flow.

The severity of the economic, political and social conditions in which Mexican migration to the United States takes place demands a review of all of the growth models applied in both economies. This time around, we cannot sidestep the phenomenon of migration, as was done in 1994. Finally, we must ensure that these growth models are based on deeper reflections regarding the causes and consequences of migration.


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* Institute of Economic Research, UNAM, Mexico. E-mail address: groldan@unam.mx.

1 Diego Asencio, former Assistant Secretary of State, presided over the commission, which is why it began to be called the Asencio Commission.

2 Some authors (Durand and Massey, 2003) attribute the origins of this formulation to Ackerman in 1976, who proposed the hypothesis of the historical emergence of the migration curve that countries experience when in processes of economic development.

3 TLCAN, Secofi, Volume I, s/f, p. 7.

Published in Mexico, 2012-2017 © D.R. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).
PROBLEMAS DEL DESARROLLO. REVISTA LATINOAMERICANA DE ECONOMÍA, Volume 48, Number 191, October-December 2017 is a quarterly publication by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Ciudad Universitaria, Coyoacán, CP 04510, México, D.F. by Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas, Circuito Mario de la Cueva, Ciudad Universitaria, Coyoacán,
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