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< Back to current issue of Immigration Daily

Evolving Demographic And Human-Capital Trends In Mexico And Central America And Their Implications For Regional Migration

by Aaron Terrazas, Demetrios G. Papademetriou And Marc R. Rosenblum for the Migration Policy Institute

Executive Summary

Over the past half century, migration from Mexico and Central America to the United States has been driven by complementary regional demographic and human-capital trends, among many other factors. As the US labor force became better educated, fewer native workers accepted many of the low-wage but essential jobs at the bottom of the labor market. These changes in the United States coincided with a population boom in Mexico and Central America that resulted in a near tripling of the region’s population. Economic growth was unable to keep pace with demographic change, however, and many of the region’s youth sought opportunities in the United States. By 2009, immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras accounted for nearly one-third (31.5 percent) of all US workers without a high school education, up from just 1.3 percent in 1970.

Yet the demographic and human-capital profiles of Mexico and Central America are evolving rapidly, as are economic conditions in the United States. (For a summary, see Table 1.) In Mexico and El Salvador, the demographic transition initiated a half century ago is running its course, translating into slower population growth, declining numbers of youth, and aging societies. By contrast, population growth is expected to remain at relatively high levels in Guatemala and Honduras for several more decades. The countries of the region have made substantial progress in expanding access to education, with Mexican youth in particular converging with their US peers on key indicators such as years of schooling. Mexican students still lag behind US students on indicators of the quality of education, however; and access to education and test scores lag even further behind in Central America, suggesting the need for a focus on quality of education now that access to education has been so significantly expanded.

At the same time, the recent US economic crisis has accelerated longstanding shifts in the US economy and labor market. Unemployment and underemployment are approaching record levels; and labor force participation is rising among the elderly, youth, and other groups that may compete with immigrants in the labor market, especially in industries such as hospitality and personal services. The retirement of the baby boom generation, which experts have predicted will lead to severe labor shortages, may be further in the future than was previously expected. It is not clear if these trends will last, or if US labor force and consumer behavior will revert to prerecession patterns once the economy starts growing again. Taken together, these changes mean that policymakers can no longer rely on the conventional wisdom about regional labor mobility that has guided their decisions in the past.

Table 1. Summary of Demographic and Human-Capital Trend
El Salvador Guatemala Honduras Mexico
Real Gross Domestic Product per capita (2009) $2,566 $1,858 $1,380 $6,099
Demographic transition Gradual aging, slowing population growth. Rapidly expanding population, high fertility rates. Growing population, high fertility rates. Rapid aging, slowing or declining population.
Access to education and student outcomes Rapid expansion of access at primary and secondary levels. Limited access and poor outcomes. Limited access and no evidence of outcomes. Rapid expansion of access, poor outcomes

Source: World Bank, “World Development Indicators.” Online database.

For the full report see here.

Originally published by the Migration Policy Institute. MPI is an independent, nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC, dedicated to the study of the movement of people worldwide. (www.migrationpolicy.org).  Additional information can be found at www.migrationpolicy.org/regionalstudygroup.


About The Author

Aaron Terrazas is a Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), where he focuses on how migration trends have evolved over the economic crisis, the linkages between migration and the social and economic development of migrants’ countries of origin, immigrant integration and education, and the role of immigrants in the workforce.

Demetrios G. Papademetriou is the President and Co-Founder of MPI. He is also the convener of the Transatlantic Council on Migration, which is composed of senior public figures, business leaders, and public intellectuals from Europe, the United States, and Canada.

Marc R. Rosenblum is a Senior Policy Analyst at MPI and Co-Director of MPI’s Regional Migration Study Group. He is the author of The Transnational Politics of US Immigration Policy (University of California, San Diego Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, 2004) and has also published over 30 academic journal articles, book chapters, and policy briefs on immigration, immigration policy, and US-Latin American relations.


The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.


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