Introductory overview

Economic growth in the countries of the Americas largely maintained itself throughout 2011-2013, at somewhat lower levels than the recovery year of 2010, following the economic crisis of 2008-2009. Indeed growth rates over the period for Latin American and Caribbean countries averaged over 4% across countries, which was close to twice the rate observed for the United States and Canada.

In the context of these growth rates, international migration, counting both permanent and temporary movements (see Box 1), increased by an average of 5 percent per year overall over the 2011-2013 period, but by an average of 18 percent per year for Latin American and Caribbean countries (Table 1). At this rate of increase, the level of immigrant inflows in these countries would double in about four years.   

Box 1. Permanent and temporary immigration

For the purposes of this publication, a temporary immigrant is a person of foreign nationality who enters a country with a visa or who receives a permit which is either not renewable or only renewable on a limited basis. Temporary immigrants are seasonal workers, international students, service providers, persons on international exchange, etc. A permanent immigrant, on the other hand, is a person who enters with the right of permanent residence or with a visa or permit which is indefinitely renewable. Permanent immigrants would generally include marriage immigrants, family members of permanent residents, refugees, certain labor migrants, etc. Generally, tourists, diplomats, business visitors and transport crew members are excluded from either of these two groups in the definitions used in this publication.

Most countries also allow for the possibility of changes of status, that is, persons entering as temporary immigrants may be able to obtain the right of permanent residence or an indefinitely renewable permit, provided certain conditions are met. A change of status is generally an exceptional situation, that is, it is not the main avenue towards a permanent residence permit. However, there exist migration regimes (see below) which allow virtually all persons entering under certain temporary permits the possibility of changing to permanent status after a minimum number of years of residence in the country.

Under the definition presented here, a person granted a temporary permit is not necessarily a temporary immigrant, if the permit is indefinitely renewable and therefore places the migrant on what might be said to be a permanent migration “track”.  For statistical purposes, persons who enter a country on a permanent migration track are counted as permanent immigrants in the year when they enter, and not in the year when they receive the right of permanent residence. Temporary immigrants who change status, however, are counted twice, once when they enter as temporary immigrants and a second time when they change to permanent status. Although this may seem like double-counting, it is deemed to be similar to a situation in which a temporary immigrant returns to the country of origin and re-migrates as a permanent immigrant. In which case the immigrant would be counted separately on each occasion.

The above perspective on immigration is based on the residence rights granted by the destination state. Other definitions commonly used elsewhere are based on the duration of the permit, irrespective of residence rights, and distinguish, for example, between long-term immigrants (greater than one year) and short-term immigrants (less than one year). Although such definitions may be easier to implement in practice, they tend to confound immigrants who more often than not return to their countries of origin (international students) and others who tend to stay in the destination country (marriage immigrants), if both groups receive permits of similar duration, which is sometimes the case. This confounding is not necessarily a drawback for the purpose of demographic accounting, but tends to produce statistics which are less closely linked to migration policy concerns, where the distinctions between the rights of permanent and of temporary residence are fundamental.

The national statistics used to produce the flow numbers in Table 1 have been “harmonized” where necessary to ensure that they respect, to the extent possible, the distinction between permanent and temporary migration outlined above.

In a number of countries figuring in this publication, in particular Chile, Colombia and the Dominican Republic, virtually all immigrants are granted temporary permits upon entry and many, if not all, are allowed to apply to become permanent residents after a certain number of years of residence in the country.  However, the percentage of such immigrants who remain in the country tends to be relatively low. For example, In Chile in 2010, about 64 thousand persons received temporary permits; however, two years later, when almost all would be eligible to apply and receive permanent residence, only 27 thousand did so. It therefore seems inappropriate to consider all immigrants entering under such regimes as permanent immigrants. Because it is not generally possible for such countries to distinguish between permanent and temporary immigrants on the basis of the permit granted at the time of entry, the limited duration entry permits for these countries are considered to cover both permanent and temporary immigrants in this report.  

Table 1. International migration inflows in the Americas, permanent and temporary, 2008-2013

Country of immigration 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 Immigration in 2013 per 1000 persons in the population Average annual % change 2010-2013
Argentina Permanent 81000 96300 96100 129300 126700 139300 3.360014800858 13.173093287205
  Temporary 144400 117700 82100 129900 164800 139400 3.3636580741233 19.314608311893
Barbados Permanent 200 300 300 400 400 1300 4.489818861455 56.097947317977
Barbados Temporary 10400 7700 6000 6600 6900 12000 42.164949902334 25.929182336277
Belize Permanent 800 700 800 1400 na na 4.3063108637916 17.480541734624
Belize Temporary 2900 na na na na na na na
Bolivia Permanent 700 1100 1000 900 1300 3800 0.35741060049479 55.212551769453
Bolivia Temporary 8900 15100 17500 20300 26100 18400 1.7288589849314 1.8108128856526
Brazil Permanent 12600 12700 18000 15500 34400 24400 0.12172971486474 10.614222540416
Brazil Temporary 51800 51000 64500 87600 101100 103500 0.5165851745535 17.054877916753
Canada Permanent 247200 252200 280700 248800 257900 259000 7.360501924523 -2.6507850781999
Canada Temporary 308000 295800 299300 315400 339600 344200 9.783210045767 4.7713652043
Chile Permanent and temporary 68400 57100 63900 76300 100100 132100 7.4994999917138 27.394164797984
Colombia Permanent and temporary 10700 13000 15100 20900 23700 29800 0.61753171291274 25.6143782241
Costa Rica Permanent 8900 10500 8400 8900 10600 16500 3.3876103564616 25.280127853757
  Temporary 4400 5500 5500 7400 6400 6900 1.4125134488439 7.9549218414015
Dominican Republic Permanent and temporary 4800 6300 5700 3400 3700 4200 0.40821775894314 -9.3162416750616
Ecuador Permanent na na na 3200 9200 14900 0.94402815932364 113.97262327947
Ecuador Temporary na na na 7900 10900 15200 0.9674747764597 38.749723060121
El Salvador Permanent 600 400 300 400 600 1600 0.24540829410638 69.239416800924
El Salvador Temporary 1900 1600 2000 1400 700 2800 0.43782353755741 11.270866600148
Guatemala Permanent 1100 1500 600 1700 1400 1400 0.087728354741659 28.738242907775
Guatemala Temporary 2100 3600 800 2500 2200 2300 0.14649406915593 40.272407049413
Jamaica Permanent and temporary 13800 5900 4800 4800 8900 9100 3.2526452213595 23.889078090533
Mexico Permanent 15900 23900 26200 21500 18200 60700 0.4962626458425 32.361337088856
Mexico Temporary 33900 32500 38800 41100 39400 33900 0.27682772737907 -4.444001293738
Panama Permanent na na 2400 3700 5100 4000 1.0302341770678 17.712856399716
Panama Temporary na na 3200 2600 4500 1800 0.45650165494789 -17.628874008108
Paraguay Permanent 5400 4300 5600 6600 9800 5600 0.81663615000526 0.018008284199844
Paraguay Temporary 600 400 300 400 3400 900 0.13613052653553 45.118501788883
Peru Permanent 600 700 700 1200 1400 na 0 41.865070838534
Peru Temporary 800 1100 600 900 600 na 0 -0.85107930705312
United States Permanent 1107100 1130800 1042600 1062000 1031600 990600 3.0949876081515 -1.6932826372705
United States Temporary 1467700 1263900 1357400 1452800 1510600 1630600 5.0947550450098 6.3039873361771
Uruguay Permanent and temporary 4000 3800 2200 1100 2400 3700 1.1 19
All countries (with complete data) Total immigration 3616400 3415100 3445600 3667900 3832800 3977700 4.4406489971619 4.9229630370349
---- Less Canada and the United States Total immigration 486300 472300 465700 588800 693000 753500 1.3967485993588 17


As noted in the 2012 issue of this report (OAS 2012), it is difficult to draw close links between aggregate economic push and pull factors and the level of international migration in many countries of the Americas. Migration inflows in many countries are generally very low compared to that observed in most OECD countries and may be affected by movements related to civil strife (for example, Colombia), natural catastrophes (Haiti) or other idiosyncratic causes. Still economic factors undoubtedly operate at the regional level where cross-border labor markets exist. In addition, the liberalization of movements in the context of regional trade agreements (Mercosur, the Andean Pact, SICA and CARICOM) has almost certainly contributed to regional movements in recent years.

Permanent migration to the United States and Canada declined somewhat over the 2010-2013 period, but was offset by an increase of about 6% in temporary migration. Permanent migration to these countries tends to be rather stable, however, because it is subject to numerical limits or target levels, but may still move up or down in response to increases or declines in, for example, resettled or recognized refugees, whose numbers are not predictable. Temporary migration, on the other hand, tends to respond more to economic factors, because much of it tends to be labor migration and labor migrants tend to move mainly in response to demand from employers, which varies according to the economic cycle. 

Many countries of the Americas showed double-digit increases in both permanent and temporary migration over the 2009-2012 period, albeit in many cases from very low levels.[1]  The level of authorized migration has increased overall by over 60% between 2010 and 2013, following two years of little change. In numerical terms, most of this increase was recorded in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico but many smaller countries, among them Barbados, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Paraguay and Uruguay recorded high annual growth rates over the period, often in excess of 25%.

Authorized immigration levels remain low in most countries, often far below the rates recorded, for example, in the United States (over 8 persons per thousand population) and Canada (17 persons per thousand population). Barbados by contrast showed very high levels of immigration on any scale, at almost 47 persons per 1000 population. Most of this was temporary migration, and about 80% of this was about equally divided between international students and workers with short-term permits.

Barbados, Belize, Costa Rica and Argentina have levels of permanent migration (Figure 1) in proportion to their populations which are higher than those of the United States but, with the exception of Barbados, trail the latter with respect to temporary migration. These countries together with Chile can be said to have entered the mainstream of immigration countries. At the other end of the spectrum are Brazil, Peru, El Salvador and Guatemala, which have especially low rates of immigration overall relative to their populations.

Figure 1. Immigration levels in 2013 per thousand persons resident in the country

The breakdown of immigration according to permanent or temporary status differs considerably across countries, with Mexico, Paraguay, Panama and Costa Rica in particular showing a higher prevalence of permanent migration in recent years and most other countries either a roughly equal balance between the two or lower levels of permanent than temporary. Generally temporary migration tends to be work- or study-related, while permanent migration is often dominated by family migration, including the accompanying family of workers, family reunification of previous migrants and marriage migrants, with labor migration playing a lesser but still important role, depending on the extent to which this form of permanent migration is encouraged by the destination country.  

The large increase in total migration observed for Latin American and Caribbean countries as a whole is a remarkable development and it is visible for both permanent and temporary migration. Whether it represents a new development in migration generally in the region or simply a redirection of irregular movements into legal channels as more attention is being paid to migration management in the region is as yet uncertain. The migration movements presented in this report are based on official statistics of authorized migration and may paint a partial picture of total movements, especially if the extent of irregular migration is large.

There are some indications that this may be the case. A number of statistical indicators yield values for certain countries which suggest that many immigrants have entered the foreign-born population as identified in the national census without having been formally identified as permanent immigrants in the statistics of entry. This can only happen if irregular migration is high and/or if there are many persons born abroad as nationals who have "returned" (See Annex 1). By way of example, recent regularizations in Argentina and Panama have represented one-fourth to one-third of the foreign-born population of those countries and dwarf the annual rate of inflow. 

Most migrants who have been regularized in Latin America came either from neighboring countries or from other countries in the region. The existence of a common language and the relative ease of cross-border movements in many countries has undoubtedly contributed to this phenomenon. The migration statistics for Latin America presented in this publication therefore likely understate the extent of international migration in general and of regional migration in particular for many countries. As the management of migration movements improves in countries, the official migration statistics will likely follow the same path and gain in coverage.

Regular international migrants in Latin America and the Caribbean, like unauthorized migrants, have been coming largely from within the region (Figure 2). In 2010 the percentage of regular immigrants coming from other countries of the Americas was approximately 73%; by 2013, it had risen to 78%. Brazil, Canada and the United States are the only countries in the region whose newly arriving immigrants come largely from outside the hemisphere. Note that it is in the high immigration countries of Argentina, Costa Rica and Chile (and to a lesser extent Barbados) that the percentage of immigrants from the Western Hemisphere was the highest in 2013.  It was 81% in Barbados and exceeded 90% in the other three countries.

Figure 2. International migrants from other countries of the Americas, by country of destination, 2013

It would therefore appear that the increasing levels of immigration in the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean are essentially due to increasing intra-regional migration.  With the greater economic integration associated with the various regional trade agreements is coming a greater incidence of migration movements, most of them also regional in nature (see the analysis below of the composition of immigrant populations in the countries of the hemisphere). The increasing importance of intra-regional migration, however, is not actually reducing the extent of immigration from outside the Americas, at least in absolute terms. The latter continued to progress over the 2010-2013 period, but by a smaller rate (12%) than immigration from other countries of the Americas, which advanced by about 46%.

Do the high levels of regional migration tend to be permanent in character, or are they movements of students or of workers taking on temporary jobs in a neighboring destination country and returning home thereafter with their degrees or savings, respectively? Under the experience of free movement within the European Union, both strategies existed; many workers returned home after a temporary stint in the destination country while others stayed on for good. Although movements within the Americas cannot always be characterized as free-circulation movements[2], a similar picture holds, with variations across countries.

About 46% of immigrants from Latin American and Caribbean countries as a whole were permanent (Figure 3), that is, granted a permit that was either permanent or indefinitely renewable or who entered under a status which in principle did not allow them to remain indefinitely but later obtained the right to do so. In contrast, this was the case for only about 39% of immigrants from outside the Americas, despite the often greater distances involved in the migration, a phenomenon which tends to be associated with establishment in the destination country.

Figure 3. Permanent migrants as a percent of all migrants, by origin, 2012-2013

In Brazil, Ecuador, the United States and especially Costa Rica, migrants from the Americas tend to be more often permanent than temporary. In other countries, however, there is little difference in the relative frequency of permanent migration between the two groups, whether this frequency is low (Barbados or Bolivia) or high (Paraguay or Peru). Finally, for Canada, immigrants from outside the Americas tend to arrive as permanent immigrants more than those from within the hemisphere, undoubtedly because of the temporary labor migration programs which exist in Canada for hemispheric migrants.

[1] The analyses of immigration in this report are based on the statistics of legal migration. There are indications that for many countries, this represents a fraction of total migration movements. See annex 1 on this issue.   

[2] « Free establishment » would be a better term, since border controls have not been eliminated between neighboring countries.