Extensive New Survey Examines Mexican Migrants’ Views Toward Immigration Reform Proposals

Contact: Cindy L. Jobbins, 215.575.4812


Washington, D.C. - 03/02/2005 - An unprecedented survey of nearly 5,000 Mexican migrants who were interviewed while applying for identity cards at Mexican consulates in the United States has found that most want to remain in this country indefinitely but would participate in a temporary worker program that granted them legal status for a time and eventually required them to return to Mexico. By a four-to-one, respondents in the Pew Hispanic Center survey said that they would sign up for a temporary worker program similar to the one proposed by President George W. Bush. A similarly lopsided majority of respondents said they would participate in a different kind of program advocated by some leading Democrats that could lead to permanent legal status in this country for many unauthorized migrants.

The Survey of Mexican Migrants interviewed 4,836 Mexican citizens who were in the process of applying for identity cards at Mexican consulates in seven cities across the United States.By a margin of six-to-one,respondents said that their family and friends still in Mexico would likewise be willing to come to the United States under a temporary program that would eventually require them to return to Mexico.

Even as many Mexican migrants offer a willingness to take part in a temporary worker program, they also state an intention to remain in the United States for the long term. Half (51 percent) of the survey respondents who said they lacked any U.S. identity documents said they intended to stay in the country for the rest of their lives or at least for as long as they are able.

Census data has shown that the patterns of migration from Mexico to the United State are changing as greater numbers of recently arrived migrants appear in new settlement areas like Raleigh and New York City even as the flow continues to traditional settlement areas, like Los Angeles and Fresno. The Pew survey suggests that these migrant streams have somewhat different characteristics that helpdetermine the impact of Mexican migration on host communities. In traditional settlement areas, for example,as many as half of all the Mexican migrants surveyed have children in public schools; in new settlement areas, the share is about one fourth.

Slightly more than half of the respondents (N=2,566 or 53%) said that they did not have any form of photo ID issued by any government agency in the United States. The share of respondents saying they had no U.S.-issued identity documents was much higher among the more recently arrived—80 percent among those in the country for two years or less and 75 percent for those in the country for five years or less. The survey allows an extraordinary view of a population that by its very nature is exceptionally difficult to measure and study: Mexicans who live in the country without proper documentation and in particular those who have been in the country for only a few years.

In addition, the survey provides detailed information on the demographic characteristics, living arrangements and work experiences of the 4,836 Mexican adults who completed a 12-page questionnaire as they were applying for a matrícula consular, an identity document issued by Mexican diplomatic missions. Fieldwork took place at the Mexican consulates in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Raleigh and Fresno from July 12, 2004 to January 28, 2005.

This is the first in a series of reports on the survey findings. Subsequent reports will examine a variety of topics in detail, including the origins of migration, employment and economic status, banking and remittances, as well as gender and family structure.

Major findings in this report include:

  • When asked how long they expected to remain in the United States, a majority of respondents picked either “as long as I can” (42%) or “for the rest of my life” (17%). Meanwhile, 27 percent said they expected to stay for five years or less.    
  • By a 4-to-1 margin (71% vs. 18%), survey respondents said they would participate in a program that would allow them to work in the United States and cross the border legally on the condition that they eventually return to Mexico. Respondents who said they had no form of U.S.-issued photo ID were even more positive (79% vs. 16%).    
  • Among respondents who said they intended to stay in the United States for “as long as I can” or for “the rest of my life,” a clear majority—68 percent—said they would participate in a temporary immigration program that would require them to return to Mexico. Acceptance of the idea of a temporary program was even higher—80 percent—among those who stated an intention to return to Mexico within five years.    
  • By a margin of 72% to 17%, respondents said they would participate in a program that offered the prospect of permanent legalization for migrants who lived here for five years, continued working and had no problems with legal authorities. Respondents who said they had no U.S.-issued ID were even more positive (79% to 15%).    
  • The largest shares of positive responses to questions about both programs came from young, relatively recently arrived migrants, who comprised nearly half of the total sample.    
  • By wide margins, respondents in the overall sample (79% vs. 13%) and among those who said they had no U.S.-issued ID (82% vs. 12%) said that their friends and family in Mexico would be willing to participate in a temporary worker program that would eventually require them to return to Mexico.    
  • The survey captured a distinctively young and recently arrived segment of the Mexican-born population living in the United States. Nearly half of the sample (48%) was between 18 and 29 years old, and almost half (43%) had been in the country for five years or less.    
  • Respondents to the survey showed a higher level of educational achievement than the adult population of Mexico at large. The share of respondents whose education stopped at primary school is half of that in the Mexican adult population, and the share that went as far as high school is three times as large.
No researcher has attempted to conduct a survey of a nationally representative sample of the undocumented population that was drawn with the level of statistical certainty that is routine for large-scale public opinion polls, and this survey does not purport to present that kind of sample. The Survey of Mexican Migrants was a purposive sample, in which any individual seeking an identity document on the days the survey was in progress could choose to participate. It was not a probability sample, in which researchers randomly select participants in a survey to avoid any self-selection bias. Moreover, the results have not been weighted to match the estimated parameters of a target population as is often the case with public opinion surveys. Instead the data are presented as raw counts.

Mexican authorities cooperated with the fieldwork by allowing it to take place at the consulates. However, the design, development and execution of the survey, the compilation and analysis of the resulting data and the writing and editing of this report were under the full and exclusive control of the Pew Hispanic Center.

The Pew Hispanic Center was founded in 2001 with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts. The Center conducts non-partisan research that aims at improving understanding of the Hispanic population. It is a project of the Pew Research Center.

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