Mexico - Trends and characteristics of Mexican migration policy since the late twentieth century to the present

The Mexican State migration policy can be defined as the collection of strategic decisions to achieve determined objectives that, based on general principles and rules contained in international agreements ratified by the country, national laws, regulations, and secondary rules of the matter, are set forth in programs and concrete actions to address the Mexican migration phenomenon comprehensively, as a country of origin, transit, destination, and return of migrants. This policy has undergone substantial changes in the last decade, culminating in the Migration Act published on May 25, 2011. However, those changes made through innumerable programs and actions still have not been integrated into a document that presents them coherently. 

The executive branch determines the country’s migration policy in its operational component, therefore, it must consider the demands and positions of the other branches of the Union, the governments of federal entities, and civil society organisations. In addition, it must establish coordination mechanisms with the three levels of government, and cooperation mechanisms with the private and social sectors, oriented towards comprehensive attention to the migration phenomenon, considering at all times Mexico’s humanitarian tradition, and its unwavering commitment to human rights, development, and national and border security.

An important effort to move towards a Mexican State migration policy based on a common platform, was the contribution of the document México frente al fenómeno migratorio (Mexico facing the migration phenomenon), published in 2005, that was prepared by consensus on an initiative of the Federal Executive branch and the Senate of the Republic, with the participation of a group made up of government officers, senators and representatives, academics, experts in migration, and representatives of civil society organisations. The document focused essentially on the topic of Mexican emigration and immigration reform in the United States. To address specifically migration management in the Southern Mexican border area, where there is a confluence of flows of migrant origin, transit, and destination, the Propuesta de política migratoria integral en la frontera sur de México (Proposal of a comprehensive migration policy for Mexico’s southern border) was also published in 2005.

Currently, the Mexican government promotes migration policies and management that aim to facilitate documented migration flows; regulate and modernise the processes of entry and legal stay of foreigners; achieve total respect for the human rights of travelers and migrants; improve control management of irregular migration flows; and contribute effectively in the safeguard of public and national security. These trends are clearly reflected and strengthened in the 2011 Migration Act, though it is not implied that these goals are satisfactorily achieved.

Notwithstanding the limitations that the 1974 General Population Act had, this policy orientation was built upon reforms made to the legal framework prior to the 2011 Migration Act, as already indicated in the previous paragraph, and the approval of new laws for specific topics, as well as actions and programs developed, in part, on international instruments signed and ratified by Mexico.

In the last two decades these regulatory limitations weighed in more regarding over-regulation of entry and stay of foreigners in the country, as well as the absence of specific regulations regarding the rights of migrants, especially for those in irregular transit through Mexico. Aspects that did not contribute to Mexico’s active participation in globalisation and regional integration processes, and enforcement of different international legal instruments, signed and ratified by Mexico, that impose upon it obligations especially in matters of protection of rights of migrants, special attention to vulnerable groups, facilitation of movement of persons, and contribution to hemispheric security.

Facilitation of international mobility of persons

In the last decade, to facilitate international mobility of persons and the legal stay of foreigners, various initiatives have been developed, among which it is worth mentioning:


  • Gradual change towards a regime of visas of long duration and multiple entries up to 10 years, for tourists and business persons of nationalities that must satisfy this requirement to enter the country, as well as the simplification and creation of mechanisms to facilitate their entry:
  • Extension of 180 days of the stay permit, once tourists, business persons, and documented transit migrants have entered the country, regardless if their stay is shorter. The objective is to promote the arrival of documented visitors, and avoid carrying out formalities of extension permits as visitors. Likewise, since 2008, Mexico participates in the plan of facilitation of entry of business persons within the framework of the APEC Travel Business Card;
  • The Global Entry Program between Mexico and the United States, started its first phase in 2011, allowing thousands of Mexicans who travel by air to enter both the United States and Mexico quickly, and without standing in lines at the migration filters of participating airports of both countries. The second phase of this program will allow Americans to enter Mexico easily.


Gradually, over the last six years, the streamlining of procedures has been achieved in the issuance of migration documentation at Mexican consulates, in order to have an updated and reliable electronic migration file. In 2010, with the new Migration Criteria and Formalities Manual, the formalities for legal stay of foreigners in Mexico have been reduced and simplified.

In general, recent migration statistics reflect a greater openness of Mexico towards the world, a gradual flexibility of the regulations for entry and legal stay of foreigners in the country, including various regularisation processes since the year 2000, that have benefited close to 30 thousand foreigners between 2000 and May 2011. Although it is still a very small number relative to the total national population, the total number of new temporary and permanent residents doubled between the periods of 1996-2003 and 2004-2009, going from approximately 18 thousand as an annual average to 42 thousand. The entries of foreign tourists to the country, mainly as tourists or visitors, doubled in 10 years reaching 21.6 million in 2007.

In Mexico’s southern border, since April 2008, migration forms for nationals of Guatemala and Belize were modified with the purpose to further facilitate cross-border life, while, at the same time, to create better conditions for the protection of rights of these persons as well as contribute to the country’s security, as part of the execution of the Proposal of a comprehensive migration policy in Mexico’s southern border. The Border Worker Migration Form (FMTF) was created for the documented entry of workers, fundamentally Guatemalans, that can be used up to one year in any sector of the economy of the federal entities adjacent to the Mexican southern border, which allows entry of the holder’s family members, and replaces a previous one that was limited to agricultural workers in the State of Chiapas. Territorial application of the Local Visitor Migration Form (FMVL) was broadened for Guatemalans from more departments of that country, and with access up to 100 km of Mexico’s interior in adjacent territories; it has a validity of five years, with stays in Mexican territory not greater than 72 hours.

Transit migration

Regarding irregular transit migration through Mexico towards the United States, that acquired importance since the mid-1990’s, the Mexican government responded by establishing a limited infrastructure and verification and migration control mechanisms throughout the country, essentially on highways and railroad lines, to detain and return to their country of origin the greatest number possible of this type of migrants. Even though that strategy works in deterrent terms, it does not eliminate irregular transit flows, and does carry costs for the safety and human rights of those migrants; upon searching for alternate routes and less presence of authorities, they find themselves exposed to organised crime groups present in the country, and thereby, to attacks, kidnappings, and assassinations. Currently, prevailing migration control continues, but also respect of human rights and improvement of housing and repatriation conditions of detained and returned migrants to their countries has been emphasised. Unfortunately, this has not reduced significantly the vulnerability of these migrants, and their exposure to organised crime networks has increased, who have augmented their criminal activities towards irregular transit migrants in Mexico and Mexican migrants headed to the United States.  

Protection of migrants

The regional memorandum of understanding signed in 2007 by Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua is linked to transit migration, but restricted to aspects of protection of migrants’ human rights for repatriation of Central Americans to their countries of origin. It does not generate sanctions to Central Americans that decide to avail by it, at the same time being repatriated in less than 48 hours. It is greater afforded to women, children and adolescents, disabled persons, and elderly migrants.

Additionally, to achieve better housing conditions for irregular migrants detained, and attain a decent treatment respecting their rights, in 2003 a program was developed to improve the  conditions and increase the existing capacity at migration stations. In addition, agreements are being negotiated with health institutions to guarantee the right to medical care for detained foreigners. To that end, in October 2009, new Operating Standards for Migration Stations operated by the INM were issued, to offer greater judicial security and provide a due process framework to undocumented foreigners detained by migration authorities, until their legal status is determined or while their repatriation or expulsion from the country is carried out.

Regarding the protection of national and foreign migrants in Mexican territory, one of the most renowned Mexican government actions is, probably, the creation of groups of protection of migrants (known as Grupos Beta). These emerged in the 90’s on the border with the United States, later extending to the southern border, and the Gulf of Mexico corridor. Currently there are 21 Grupos Beta. These groups, composed of officials from the three levels of government (municipal, state and federal level) , are coordinated by the INM, and are in charge of patrolling areas where Mexican and foreign irregular migrants transit, with the goal to aid and warn them of the risks they are taking. On many occasions their action has been decisive in saving the lives and safeguarding the rights of these migrants. The groups perform their work in nine states of the MexicanRepublic: Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Chiapas, Tabasco, Veracruz and Oaxaca.

The protection and safeguarding of migrant children and adolescents (NNA, for their initials in Spanish) is a priority on the Mexican government’s agenda. Therefore, on March 30, 2007 the Inter-Institutional Dialogue Committee on Unaccompanied Migrant Children, Youth and Women was created with the objective to promote inter-institutional coordination, and establish the measures and mechanisms that allow the guarantee of the rights of unaccompanied migrant children and women. The Committee is made up of institutions and organisations of renowned prestige and interest in contributing towards the solution of unaccompanied children and women. Within the Committee’s framework a Model for the Protection of Migrant and Repatriated Unaccompanied Children and Youth was established, in which creation of Child Protection Officers OPIs)” was considered. OPIs are Federal Migration Agents dedicated to guaranteeing the respect for the rights of migrant children and youth, especially those unaccompanied. The OPI experience has been replicated in other countries of the region.    

Mexico’s government, consistent with its humanitarian tradition, has carried out in recent years changes to guarantee the rights of persons seeking refugee status or international protection with new legal instruments, such as the Refugees and Complementary Protection Act and the Prevention and Sanction of Trafficking in Persons Act. It also approved other provisions that allow legal stay in the country of persons due to various humanitarian reasons, such as victims or witnesses of trafficking and kidnapping crimes, among others.  

With regard toMexican emigration towards the United States, which in major part is done irregularly, in 1996, local arrangements were formulated for the regulated, safe, and humane Mexico-United States repatriation of irregular Mexican migrants, that are detained attempting to enter, or who are already within, the United States. In 2004, a general memorandum was signed, and local arrangements were updated between 2008 and 2009, with the purpose to improve their procedures, and up-hold the rights of repatriated migrants.

Furthermore, since 2004, American and Mexican migration authorities have carried out bilaterally a voluntary repatriation program to the interior during the summer months. The main purpose of this program is to avoid repetitive crossing attempts through areas with very high temperatures on the border during that time of the year, and thus reduce the deaths of migrants. Participants are transferred by air from Arizona, United States, to Mexico City, from where they are transferred in buses to their communities of origin, guaranteeing a safe repatriation, respecting the integrity and human rights of the migrants.

Additionally, in 2008, the Humane Repatriation Program started in cities to which Mexicans deported by the United States arrive, to articulate governmental support of border states and municipalities, civil society organizations, local DIFs, and various federal dependencies, to offer repatriates food, shelter, emergency medical attention, communication with family members, transportation to their places of origin, temporary job offers, and certification of labor abilities.

On the other hand, since 1989, the Programa Paisano (Compatriot Program) was launched to inform and assist Mexicans temporarily or permanently returning from the United States. In its execution intervene 22 Mexican institutions, coordinated by the INM, and its purpose is to inform Mexicans visiting Mexico of their rights, customs provisions, support programs, and laws and regulations that may affect their transit through Mexican territory. This would prevent them from being prey to extortion, corruption, or undue collections by local, state, or federal authorities. This program is permanent, but is reinforced during Easter (Holy Week), the summer and winter, as the periods receive major influxes of Mexicans from abroad.

Modernisation, transparency and the fight against crime

As part of the modernisation and transparency of migration management, information systems have been developed to support the various migration management processes, and reformulation, international recognition, and the dissemination of national migration statistics, with the objective of providing timely and reliable information to make decisions regarding migration policy and management. Also the process of digitalisation of migration files by INM was started to facilitate information recovery and the resolution of paperwork.

The publication in May 2011, of the new Migration Act and its Regulation in the coming months, culminates a process of several years of gradual transformation of the migration legal framework in Mexico that updates and harmonises national legislation with international commitments acquired by Mexico in such matters, especially the protection of the human rights of migrants. The Law, as explained in various epigraphs of the previous section, recognises the migrant as a subject with rights, simplifies the regulations regarding entry and legal stay of foreigners in the country; and, at the same time, allows use of technology for the entire migration management regarding tourists, immigrants that come for family reasons, pensioners, and investors, as well as those that seek asylum, refugee status, or humanitarian protection.

Another innovative aspect of this law is that it reduces the discretionary margins that favoured arbitrariness or fostered corruption by public servants. Furthermore, it clearly sanctions the infractions within the administrative area for foreigners, and the penal area for traffickers, smugglers and migration authorities when in collusion with them.

In the fight against crime, institutional capabilities have been improved through the professionalisation of INM personnel. There has been an important collaboration with the Legislative Branch to prosecute by court appointment the crime of trafficking in persons and increase the sentences for those who commit them. A Comprehensive Strategy for Prevention and Fight Against Kidnapping of Migrants (Estrategia Integral para la Prevención y Combate al Secuestro de Migrantes) was established, and work is carried out in three spheres of competency to assist foreigners victims of some crime: crime prevention, migration assistance, and as applicable, submit reports (formal complaints / accusations), and exchange of information with competent authorities in the investigation.

In the year 2010, the Trust Control Centre (Centro de Control de Confianza) was created to constantly evaluate the performance of INM’s public servants and reduce violations of human rights by them. The new Migration Act establishes the National Institute of Migration, as the organisation in charge of migration management in the country elevating it to the rank of Law.

Modernisation of the Mexican migration policy framework is adapted to the economic, political, and social dynamics of the country; immersed in globalisation and regional and sub-regional integration processes; economic openness; greater participation in international mechanisms, and deepening of its democratic regime.

International cooperation

Mexico has developed an active role in various international mechanisms related to migration management, under the approach of cooperation and shared responsibility between the governments involved in migration movements that converge in the country. Some of the bilateral mechanisms that are currently in place and running, have already been mentioned previously, such as the agreements for the orderly and safe repatriation of Mexicans with the United States.

In this regard, the Regional Conference on Migration (CRM, for its initials in Spanish) or Puebla Process, has special significance. The CRM was created in 1996 at the initiative of Mexico and has already marked 15 years of uninterrupted work. In this mechanism participate the governments of: Canada, the United States, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and the Dominican Republic. Its primary objective is to exchange information, share experiences and better practices, and carry out consultations in general aimed at promoting regional coordination and cooperation on migration matters. Its efforts are directed to protect the human rights of migrants and strengthen the integrity of migration laws, borders, and the national security of each one of the member countries, as well as to solidify the bonds between migration and development.

In this forum the memorandum for organised and safe repatriation of Guatemalan, Honduran, and Salvadoran nationals from Mexico was promoted and established, and the networks of Consular Protection Liaison Officers are in operation, as well as the Fight against Migrant Smuggling and Trafficking in Persons, among other mechanisms of cooperation. In particular, Mexico has extended among participating countries its experience in the creation and training of migration officers specialised in child protection (the aforementioned OPIs), and has also promoted seminars on specific topics, such as the one held in 2010 on migration and family.

In 2010, Mexico organised for the first time in the Americas, the Global Forum on Migration and Development with broad international participation of governments and civil society organisations related to international migration matters. The central theme was: “Alliances for Migration and Human Development: Shared Prosperity, Shared Responsibility.” Here specific topics not debated in previous forums stood out, such as: irregular migration and family and migration.

At the same time, in recent years the work with international organisations such as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been strengthened, through their offices in Mexico, with the execution of specific programs in training, assisted return, seminars, and joint research projects, among other forms of cooperation

Mexicans abroad

In the last decade of the Twentieth century the expression “the policy of not having a policy” was of public domain, to characterise migration policy regarding Mexican emigration between the 70’s and mid-90’s, because of the government’s propensity to leave emigration to follow its own course. Since then, it actively searches rapprochement with Mexicans abroad, the defense of their rights, and promotes a “shared responsibility” approach with the government of the United States to manage bilateral migration issues.

After some advances in the second half of the 90’s, among them the law of non-loss of nationality to Mexicans that obtained another citizenship and the extension of the vote to Mexicans abroad in 1996 (although the latter did not come into force until the 2006 presidential elections); it was not until the year 2000, that the government assumed a much more active role regarding the Mexican Diaspora and emigration processes, it became a political interest of top priority, as it recognizes the contribution of the Diaspora to the Mexican economy and society. Consular network attention has been strengthened in the United States and other countries, organisations of Mexicans abroad have been championed, and in 2003, the relationship between the State and the Diaspora was institutionalised through the creation of the Institute of Mexicans Abroad (IME), to provide greater effectiveness to tens of governmental programs destined to the attention of the needs of Mexicans settled abroad.  

Some of the relevant programs started through the consulates are the Mexitel Telephone Service (Servicio de Atención Telefónica Mexitel), issuance of the High Security Consular Registration (Matrícula Consular de Alta Seguridad), and the Mobile Consulate Program (Programa de Consulado Móvil).

To support development in communities of origin, information and financial education programs have been started to assist the migrant, both in effective use of remittances of money from abroad, as well as productive use or investment of remittances or savings brought with them upon their return. The government participates, at all three levels, as a partner in financing social works and productive investment through mechanisms such as the 3 x 1 Program (Programa 3 x 1), that promotes projects that improve infrastructure of those communities with contributions from migrants abroad, and the State and federal government. There is also the My House in Mexico Program (Programa Mi Casa en México) which assists with the acquisition of housing in Mexico for Mexicans living abroad.

Regarding health matters, there are various support and care programs for Mexican migrants, whose objectives are to protect migrants’ health upon his/her exit, stay outside the country, and upon return, and also to insure the welfare of his/her family members in Mexico. Migrants that are sick receive support for their transportation to the community of origin, and in the event of death, support is offered to families to repatriate their bodies.

Regarding educational matters, there are national and bi-national programs to facilitate continued education for migrants (revalidation, accreditation, or distance learning), offering bilingual education programs, in coordination with other institutions in the destination country, and supporting migrants with scholarships. It is based on the premise of preserving and strengthening migrants’ bonds with Mexico, so that consulates, embassies, and secretariats of state, cultural conferences, activities, and recognitions are carried out that highlight the achievements of Mexicans abroad and disseminate the culture.

Dialogue with the United States is the most important bilateral activity, and it has intensified since 2001, with the objective of defining a broad and consensus-based migration agenda between both countries, with the goal to find formulas to confront multiple challenges and opportunities caused by the migration phenomenon between both nations. On its part, the Mexican Government seeks the creation of broad temporary worker programs, the regularisation of undocumented migrants living in the country, and other bilateral agreement venues regarding migration matters. These changes were slowed down by the September 2001 terrorist attacks; that resulted in greater immigration control at the common border by the United States and in a drastic increase of costs and risks to cross the border.


In summary, current Mexican migration policy is based on the principles contained in the 2011 Migration Act, which have been present in the migration policy’s management and actions in the last two decades, although some of them have not been fully implemented yet. These principles are: unbridled respect for the human rights of national and foreign migrants; comprehensive coordination regarding the complexity of the migration phenomenon in Mexico as a country of origin, transit, and destination of migrants; shared responsibility; cohesion, hospitality and solidarity; facilitation of international mobility of persons, safeguarding order and security; complementary approach to labour markets with countries of the region; equality between nationals and foreigners; recognition of rights acquired by foreigners; family unity, and the superior interest of the child, and adolescent; social and cultural integration of nationals and foreigners; facilitation of return to national territory, and the social reinsertion of Mexican migrants and their family members.