Illegal Mexican workers miscounted, study finds Settlers in United States far fewer than estimated

MEXICO CITY — MEXICO CITY -- The first formal migration study to be sponsored by the U.S. and Mexican governments has concluded that the number of undocumented Mexican workers who have settled in the United States in this decade is far lower than some politicians have suggested, only about 105,000 a year.

Drawn from a two-year analysis of U.S. and Mexican census and other data, the figure is the first authoritative estimate of the net annual flow of illegal Mexican workers into the United States, which has been an elusive statistic at the center of political and academic dispute on both sides of the border.


During the last presidential campaign in the United States, some conservatives made immigration a powerful issue, with lurid portrayals of an America overrun by illegal Mexicans, a million of whom were said to pour across the border each year, taking jobs from Americans and driving up welfare costs.

The new estimate appears alongside a series of other groundbreaking conclusions in a new Binational Study on Migration. The document was commissioned by Presidents Clinton and Ernesto Zedillo in early 1995 and brought together 20 prominent demographers and scholars -- 10 Mexican and 10 American -- for 2 1/2 years of research, field work and analysis.


"No controversy ever really ends, so it would be ingenuous for us to think this will resolve all the disputes over migration," said Francisco Alba Hernandez, a demographer at the Colegio de Mexico who took part in the study. "But this is our attempt to arrive at the most reasonable overview, based on the facts available, instead of just throwing numbers around."

The study was circulated Friday to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Attorney General Janet Reno, Foreign Minister Jose Angel Gurria of Mexico and other senior officials, and is to be made public on Tuesday. A contributor to the study provided the New York Times with its executive summary and key chapters.

Migration is one of the most contentious issues dividing the countries, and for three decades each government has molded policies to suit its own needs. The joint study is part of a shift toward increased cooperation, officials said.

"We have focused on protection of migrants' rights," Gurria said in a recent interview, "and you in the United States have focused on containment, meaning stopping them with physical obstacles more agents or whatever. Now we're trying to find common interests, to develop a few common approaches, and just deciding how we are going to manage our differences over the things we cannot agree upon."

Among the study's conclusions were these:

Migrant workers in the United States, both legal and undocumented, most of whom in the past have returned to homes in Mexico at least once a year, are tending to stay longer north of the border. "The rate of back-and-forth movement seems to be slowing," the study concludes.

The average income of Mexican migrants has dropped during this decade. In 1996, 11 percent of recently arrived families headed by a Mexican-born person had incomes below $5,000, compared with 5.5 percent in 1990.

Mexican migrants are no more likely than poor Americans to receive welfare. But many local governments pay more in services to Mexican-born households than they receive in taxes, largely because the migrants, earning little, pay little. The largest public expenditure is for education.


The most important direct result of the migration is the money that migrants send home to Mexico, estimated at $2.5 billion to $3.9 billion each year. That is the equivalent of about half the direct foreign investment in Mexico, the study says.

The Mexican-born population living in the United States numbers 7 million to 7.3 million, of whom 4.7 million to 4.9 million are legal residents and 2.3 million to 2.4 million are "unauthorized residents," the study says.

Pub Date: 8/31/97