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At their summit in February of this year, the new presidents of Mexico and the United States promised to work together to create an "orderly framework for migration" between the two countries. As a result, a new high-level working group has been established to study migration between Mexico and the United States. The Mexican government has already indicated its strong desire for an increase in the number of Mexicans allowed to work in the United States legally as well as an amnesty for many or all of the illegal Mexican immigrants now living in the United States. In addition, a number of members of Congress have put forth various proposals, including a new guestworker program for Mexicans, an increase in legal immigration from that country, an amnesty for illegal aliens or some combination of all these proposals.2 Whatever the outcome of these initiatives, policymakers in the United States clearly need up-to-date information in order to weigh the costs and benefits of such programs. Using the latest data available, this report examines the characteristics of the Mexican-born population currently residing in the United States in order to shed light on the effect it has on the country. Perhaps most importantly, by examining the Mexican immigrant population in the United States, this report provides insight into the likely impact of future immigration from Mexico.

Data Sources

The data for this report come primarily from the March 2000 Current Population Survey (CPS) collected by the Census Bureau.3 The March CPS includes an extra-large sample of Hispanics and is considered the best source of information on persons born outside of the United States — referred to as foreign-born by the Census Bureau, though for the purposes of this report, foreign-born and immigrant are used synonymously.4 Because all children born in the United States to immigrants (including illegal aliens) are by definition natives, the nation’s immigrant population can only grow through the arrival of new immigrants. The issuance of permanent residency visas, temporary long-term visas, and the settlement of illegal aliens greatly exceeds deaths and return-migration. For this reason, the nation’s Mexican immigrant population continues to grow rapidly. In the March 2000 CPS, 850,000 Mexican immigrants indicated that they had entered the country in 1998, 1999, or the first three months of 2000. This means that almost 400,000 legal and illegal Mexican immigrants now arrive in the United States each year.

End Notes

2 The high-level binational panel consists of Secretary of State Colin Powell, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Mexican Interior Secretary Santiago Creel, and Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge Castaneda. There are a number of competing proposals being discussed by Congress. The various guestworker programs differ mainly over the question of legal permanent residency. Senator Phil Gramm’s (R-Texas) proposal would allow Mexican illegal aliens already residing within the United States to apply for a temporary visa, which would permit them to work for one year in the United States. After that, the workers would be required to return to Mexico and apply for re-entry. Following three successive years, the workers would return to Mexico, fulfill a one-year waiting period, and could then reapply for the program. The plan includes hour and wage protection for the workers, but it does not include the prospect of permanent residence.

In contrast, Senator Gordon H. Smith (R-Ore.) and Representative Howard L. Bermann (D-Calif.) have proposed eliminating the burden on the agricultural industry to show a need for additional laborers. Under their plan, illegal aliens who have worked in agriculture for six years would be eligible for permanent residency. Other members of Congress have proposed granting an amnesty to some or all of the illegal immigrants living in the United States. Senator Henry Reid (D-Nev.) has suggested allowing Mexican illegal aliens who have worked in the United States since 1981 to be eligible for green cards. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) has proposed granting legal status to any illegal alien who has worked in the United States for the past five years.

Think tanks and academics have also contributed to the discussion. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace held a binational panel on U.S.-Mexican migration policy in February of 2001. Among the panel’s recommendations were the legalization of illegal-alien Mexicans who are "established and working" and increasing the size of work visa programs. With regard to the criteria of the programs, the panel listed equitable labor rights, social and health protections, and permanent residence eligibility for qualified workers.

The Mexican government has remained cautiously ambiguous when commenting about immigration. Central to their concerns are the "regularization" of Mexican illegal aliens. While this includes permanent visas, employment protections, and Social Security benefits, they have not voiced support for any specific legislative proposal.

3 The Current Population Survey is conducted each month and includes more than 130,000 individuals. While its primary purpose is to collect information on employment, the Survey contains detailed questions on income, welfare use, health insurance coverage, and many other topics.

4 All persons not born in the United States, one of its outlying territories, or of U.S. parents living abroad are considered immigrants. All persons born in the United States, including the children of illegal aliens, are considered natives. The foreign-born population in the CPS includes perhaps five million illegal aliens (an estimated three million from Mexico) and also persons on long-term temporary visas, such as students and temporary workers. The survey is considered such an accurate source of information on the characteristics of the foreign-born because unlike the decennial census, households in the CPS receives an in-person visit from a Census Bureau-trained interviewer.

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