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The changing face of transit migration in Mexico: higher remittances

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In observance of International Migrants Day, Dec 18

Mexico has become a transit country as a stopping point in the journey of several Central American migrants to their intended destination in the United States.  The profile of the migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador have changed. The recent migrants’ flows are more diversified and composed of families, children, and unaccompanied children while traditional migration flows were composed of young men.

Due to the COVID-19 restrictions and migration policies, Central American migrants waiting for their applications to be processed under the “Remain in Mexico” program were uncertain as to when their cases would be reprogrammed. Migrants are living in the Mexican border cities sometimes in crowded conditions. Their situation is becoming protracted requiring support from their families back home.  

The latest Migration and Development Brief 35 published by KNOMAD/World Bank hinted that “the most likely explanation of the increase in remittances to Mexico is the increase in transit migration.”   In the report, we intended to provide a calculation on inflows that could potentially explain this large increase. Although the numbers are subject to a high degree of uncertainty, they represent a theoretical exercise for providing some preliminary calculations on the increase in remittance flows. A back-of-the-envelope calculation estimates that the grand total of such costs would be nearly $4 billion. These costs include: 

Living costs for temporary residents, regional visitors, and undocumented migrants in Mexico. Since several of the migrants have families in the USA and back home, they are receiving remittances in Mexico. According to the Mexican Migration Statistics, there were 443,885 foreign-born who have registered in Mexico (several of them are in transit or trying to cross to Mexico). Some of these migrants are staying in Mexico while are awaiting to get their asylum cases heard in the USA or to be able to cross to the USA. Using a conservative approach, we can assume that these migrants could be receiving $200 per month in remittances.

To estimate the numbers, we used data on migration statistics that are collected by the Unidad de Política Migratoria, Registro e Identidad de Personas of Mexico. We found that the potential number of undocumented include presented undocumented (190,476), retuned by deportation (1,520) and returned by assisted return (65,645). These numbers would be 264,772 undocumented migrants.

Payments to smuggler by an undocumented migrant in Mexico. We use data on three variables: i) the number of undocumented migrants in Mexico; ii) the percentage of those migrants who hire coyotes; iii) the typical payments made, per migrant, to smugglers. To estimate the percentage of unlawful migrants who hire smugglers along the routes, we used the data from the Migrant Border Crossing Study. The study found that recent deportees in five border cities, more than 70 percent of migrants used a coyote. 

The smuggling costs to cross from Mexico to the USA has been increasing commensurate with the increase in border control. According to Andreas (2011), smuggling costs were a few hundred dollars in 1994. The costs increased to over $3,000 reported in the Mexican Migration Project, 2019. The smuggling costs are differentiated by the nationality of the migrant. For example, Central American were charged about $6,000 to $7,000 to cross Mexico (Vogt, 2018, p. 99). According to the 2017 “Survey of Migration at Mexico’s Southern Border” reported that the average payments to smugglers of migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador were about $10,700, $10,600, and $8,000 respectively.  Due to COVID, costs have increased and range up to $20,000

Payment to smuggler by Mexican single adult apprehended and returned. We use the number of Mexicans who have been returned from the USA.

The increase in the duration that migrants traversing through Mexico in order to cross to the United States as well as the different nationalities trying to cross to the US could explain in part the surge in remittances into Mexico 


Sonia Plaza

Senior Economist, Finance, Competitiveness and Innovation Global Practice, World Bank

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