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Immigrant and emigrant populations in the Americas

Immigrant populations

Historically, international migration in the Americas can be characterized by three significant periods: a) until around 1950, the countries of the entire American continent were destinations for transoceanic immigration from Europe in particular, only to become – with the notable exceptions of the United States and Canada – countries of emigration; b) starting around 1960 a permanent and increasingly intense emigration began from the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean to developed countries, principally the United States, Canada and Spain; and c) a moderate, but steadily increasing trend of intra-regional migration has developed over the past decades, which has seen Argentina, Costa Rica, Venezuela, and recently Chile become regional migrant-receiving countries.

The immigrant population in the Americas has risen from about from 34 million in 1990 to 61 million in 2013, an increase of almost 78% compared to the 42% rise observed in the rest of the world (Table 8).

Table 8. International migrant stock by country and region of residence,1990-2013

Country or region of residence International migrant stock as a percentage of the total population (both sexes) Index of change in the migrant stock (1990=100) Number of immigrants
  1990 2013 2000 2010 2013 2013
Canada 16.261317335912 20.704139287853 123.51290855562 155.55000187881 161.95742054345 7284069
United States of America 9.1357244590944 14.30557337044 149.73125487022 190.02878840701 196.91642854814 45785090
Canada and the United States 9.8 14.9 145.47852533448 184.43443815159 191.24376584136 53069159
Antigua and Barbuda 19.431072917003 31.93087736845 195.12012636129 233.16152631141 238.86441100673 28733
Bahamas 10.476402250154 16.255226910174 143.19121206479 226.16272574939 228.4230124744 61343
Barbados 8.2487583675232 11.340481443487 114.57086761406 142.03440538519 150.89753178758 32280
Cuba 0.32596470412112 0.14359606551929 52 47 47 16177
Dominica 3.5514888337469 8.9149063233476 147.79674473998 228.86065899166 254.82334259627 6419
Dominican Republic 4.0185769000323 3.8688508895966 122.13971444371 136.14584871768 138.24647691404 402506
Grenada 4.4274349334275 10.734015127907 153.0612244898 228.78254750176 266.64320900774 11367
Guyana 0.56479408807478 1.8471435556951 194.70085470085 319.19413919414 360.68376068376 14770
Haiti 0.26840631010802 0.36889889867284 135.35946342486 183.94466568853 199.43932089709 38061
Jamaica 0.87772296002344 1.2538938348094 118.74759152216 156.27167630058 168.14547206166 34907
Saint Kitts and Nevis 7.9519016481767 10.468527984352 124.63812750231 162.85802279027 174.71512165075 5673
Saint Lucia 3.8616297582863 6.6822842659088 138.68065967016 206.42803598201 228.26086956522 12180
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 3.7243393576352 9.380742962157 159.34065934066 232.69230769231 256.24375624376 10260
Suriname 4.4327914958059 7.7270266060422 152.55393488991 218.92296600299 231.10199101547 41670
Trinidad and Tobago 4.1464795925048 2.4223968814846 82.408321162121 67.966683772155 64.121896340741 32488
Caribbean 1.6 2 125.31810385312 150.09825796192 154.45708193001 748834
Belize 16.210970824091 15.323892738777 120.01052493093 152.47993685041 167.28062097092 50860
Costa Rica 13.565732709966 8.6116113449336 74.455256831439 97.072993190112 100.46548603063 419572
El Salvador 0.88619006756077 0.65634101280445 66.961570945946 85.143581081081 87.869510135135 41615
Guatemala 2.9724096824763 0.4704101698174 18.209167590641 25.120999632933 27.535315999198 72764
Honduras 5.5146793417371 0.33964015407855 10.524622535805 10.090857656338 10.170362728022 27503
Mexico 0.8144893147071 0.90201778843559 74.273842941257 137.288899539 157.39250992743 1103460
Nicaragua 0.98584074389505 0.68221610208934 74.879878407531 98.377132771132 101.69150813885 41482
Panama 2.4803601128529 4.0996384734626 140.06095880417 228.5566057619 256.83273617484 158417
Central America 1.5929962594452 1.1444543234536 59.62959872559 94.31451113718 104.47417776622 1915673
Bolivia (Plurinational State of) 0.8770915004108 1.4462291026314 149.45125020977 244.70045309616 258.98640711529 154330
Colombia 0.31307888646994 0.26827034520209 105.11330398842 119.17393097231 124.3150455038 129632
Ecuador 0.77702649642276 2.2831222862447 128.84329354334 414.00404256131 456.77764641572 359315
Peru 0.25717853200218 0.34540548874042 107.04373761006 167.61202293144 187.37877949029 104919
Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) 5.1834764836618 3.8524026493225 99.049312051006 110.42570844723 114.470627671 1171331
Andean Region 1.4 1.4 103.91176457237 137.65870620117 145.22266152815 1919527
Argentina 5.0572425199251 4.5496955261039 93.351188755327 109.45731275293 114.2891257086 1885678
Brazil 0.53359562469189 0.29929738397153 85.73342834279 74.208564125748 75.098964705823 599678
Chile 0.81354298077862 2.2602587965703 164.95846550265 343.65819852839 370.4626003479 398251
Paraguay 4.3140215170456 2.7310782610869 95.688221016173 99.123462513977 101.33144244143 185776
Uruguay 3.1549151575544 2.1581057227605 90.577479717885 77.727383912919 74.93986709609 73528
Southern Cone 1.4 1.2 93.975445021971 106.64568962722 110.76775541449 3142911
Latin America and the Caribbean 1.6 1.4 88 112 119 7726945
Total Americas 4.7 6.2 134.71626309311 170.85868673893 177.61836824464 60796104
Rest of the World 2.6 2.8 107.06045982146 135.27750642892 142.34743486546 170726111
Grand Total 2.9 3.2 113.20283280734 143.1801111226 150.18113350176 231522215

 

Almost all of this increase was in Canada and the United States, where the immigrant population has nearly doubled since 1990, attaining a level of 53 million persons in 2013.[1] By contrast, the immigrant population in Latin America and the Caribbean has increased by only 19% since 1990, reaching a level of 7.7 million in 2013. However, if the evolution is measured over the 2000-2013 period, the increase of the immigrant population in Latin America and the Caribbean for 2013 has been somewhat greater than that observed in Canada and the US (35% vs. 31%).

Despite the increase in the number of immigrants in Latin America and the Caribbean between 1990 and 2013, immigration remains limited in this region, representing only 1.4% of the total population in the region in 2013, compared to 14.9% for Canada and the United States.

A number of legal, economic, social and cultural factors have influenced the growing number of immigrants in Latin America and the Caribbean between 2000 and 2013.

First of all, Latin America and the Caribbean have renewed with economic growth, creating broader employment opportunities in general. Secondly, the various free-trade regimes linking different countries of the Americas, in particular Mercosur, have expanded their membership, with signatory countries having introduced provisions facilitating entry, stay and access to employment by each other’s citizens. The result has been an increase in movements from the poorer to the (locally) richer countries of the region (Argentina, Barbados, Chile, Costa Rica), with workers drawn to the better wages available in the destination countries. These developments may well have been abetted by the often more difficult border-crossing conditions for migrants from Central America seeking to enter the United States as well as the unfavorable labor market conditions in Spain, the two main destination countries for emigrants from the Americas. 

Still, as is evident from table 8, these explanations do not do full justice to the range of increases in the immigrant population observed over the 2000-2013 period in countries of the Americas. Indeed, large increases are observed in most countries, whether rich or poor. Central America and the Andean Region in particular, have seen very large increases in their immigration populations since the year 2000 (39% and 73%, respectively). Most of the increase in Central America was concentrated in Mexico and Panama. The increase in the Caribbean has been smaller (23%), but foreign-born populations in this region of the Americas tend to be relatively larger than elsewhere, and larger immigrant populations in countries tend to show smaller proportional increases.

The heightened mobility observed in Latin America and the Caribbean over the last decade may well reflect a loosening of entry restrictions in general, but also cheaper transportation costs and better access to information about job opportunities elsewhere. The increases, however, are from very low levels in many countries and the immigration populations remain small overall in proportional terms.  Certain countries, however, are beginning to emerge as significant destinations for emigrants from the region.  

Origin and destination countries of immigrants and emigrants

The United States is of course the most important destination country for migrants of the Americas, but also for migrants worldwide. Between 1990 and 2013, the population of immigrants in the United States doubled. By 2013, five out of six migrants from the Americas and one in five worldwide lived in the United States.

Although the immigrant population in the United States of America is large in both absolute and proportions terms, several countries of the Americas have immigrant populations which are larger in relative terms. These are Antigua and Barbuda (31.9%), Canada (20.7%), Bahamas (16.3%) and Belize (15.3%).

Not all of the increase in immigration in the United States has come through formal channels. Almost half of the growth in the immigrant population since 1990 (+23.2 million) has come from irregular migration, from both border-crossing without inspection and from visa overstaying.[2] With the United States economy growing strongly during the nineties and following the turn of the century up to 2008, many immigrants have been attracted by the numerous employment opportunities, often in lesser-skilled occupations, which the generally more educated native-born workforce of the United States has been less willing to take on.[3] Many unauthorized immigrants, present with their families, have also had children in the United States.  Indeed, it is estimated that over 4 million children born in the United States and who are therefore American citizens, have at least one unauthorized parent (Passel and Cohn 2009). [4] Irregular migration has thus contributed to an increase in the non-immigrant population as well.

While the United States has continued as a magnet for potential immigrants for the Americas in recent decades, many other countries, as we have seen, have seen large increases in their own immigrant populations. Where have these new immigrants been coming from?

Table 9 provides for each country in the Americas an overview of the origins of their immigrant populations.

Table 9. Distribution of immigrants in the Americas by region or continent of origin, 2013

Country of residence Canada and the United States Caribbean Central America Andean Region Southern Cone Europe Asia Africa Oceania Total
Canada 4.386778873182 6.4877337103753 2.2631993189521 1.4860375430271 1.2502078165377 35.596340452019 41.40291641938 6.2221815855945 0.90460428093144 100
United States of America 1.9157743274066 13.306993608618 35.659608837724 4.2580215524312 1.5870166466856 11.594008005663 27.706316619668 3.4786018767245 0.4936585250788 100
Canada and the United States 2.3 12.4 31.1 3.9 1.5 14.9 29.6 3.9 0.4 100
Antigua and Barbuda 10.56514525751 77.803664089802 0.084718839351901 0.1411980655865 0.017649758198313 4.2288820643157 1.9167637403368 5.1749091037453 0.067069081153588 100
Bahamas 9.6675487925901 80.628514720476 0.57227919285478 0.78068144227588 0.37710883228581 4.3003638769434 3.0086007277539 0.51108170691366 0.15382070790605 100
Barbados 9.6471062714257 71.635410364993 0 0 0 16.192780802581 2.3916112119379 0 0.13309134906231 100
Cuba 4.7872699076259 11.50967567932 6.4729283258041 3.8972422628279 2.9263030139573 63.657204504079 4.6591598678444 1.9418784977412 0.14833794079968 100
Dominica 14.291173098968 67.940389759266 0.019105846388995 0.53496369889186 0.4012227741689 13.393198318686 2.2162781811234 1.0699273977837 0.13374092472297 100
Dominican Republic 4.3574505721654 70.557457528583 1.9701569666042 7.6376501219858 2.462820430006 10.065191574784 2.6464201775874 0.2608656765365 0.041986951747303 100
Grenada 4.7034482758621 88.220689655172 0 7.0758620689655 0 0 0 0 0 100
Guyana 11.367637102234 47.691266079892 0 14.434664861205 14.664861205146 3.9471902505078 7.8943805010156 0 0 100
Haiti 12.612102865873 29.08309050273 3.2704331343537 20.810818457012 6.1221602964891 24.887543497327 3.2138512462161 0 0 100
Jamaica 36.265110462693 31.054606085869 4.344759034213 0 0 22.890948151473 5.4445762657518 0 0 100
Saint Kitts and Nevis 22.619926199262 65.977859778598 0.055350553505535 0.22140221402214 1.789667896679 6.9557195571956 1.6605166051661 0.68265682656827 0.03690036900369 100
Saint Lucia 11.115316679283 65.922281100177 0.54251829422155 0.76961897552359 3.8102447640676 13.916225082009 3.0532424930608 0.64345193035579 0.22710068130204 100
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 14.52485191862 74.002060262683 0 0 0 11.473087818697 0 0 0 100
Suriname 0.95821755953154 32.324911059752 0 0 18.590459373134 36.453815991067 11.672596016516 0 0 100
Trinidad and Tobago 14.770304322543 69.928280674549 0 5.5592169025005 0 8.0907152548944 1.6514828455127 0 0 100
Caribbean 7.8 64.2 1.7 6.1 3.1 13.2 3.3 0.5 0.1 100
Belize 8.0804372654593 1.6417849567629 85.966307717409 0 0 1.1992168379834 3.0102790014684 0.10197422091695 0 100
Costa Rica 3.4977171651431 1.9187153014032 83.30251752803 6.1902789693222 1.0319596879961 2.7803252176828 1.2143892553915 0.04166296877003 0.022433906260786 100
El Salvador 13.420641595579 0.75453562417398 75.55448756458 2.922023308903 1.8406824462333 3.8447675117145 1.5282950859065 0.062477472065361 0.072089390844647 100
Guatemala 12.359133637513 1.2025177285471 73.426419658073 2.8777967126601 1.7220053872794 4.1641471057116 4.1091748666923 0.046726403166401 0.09207850035732 100
Honduras 18.688870305058 2.7487910409773 63.716685452496 5.1267134494419 2.1961240591935 4.3122568447078 3.1414754754027 0.039995636839617 0.029087735883358 100
Mexico 77.729595998043 1.6955757345078 6.7236691860149 3.5485654214924 2.748173925652 5.312199807877 2.0443876533812 0.14001413734979 0.057818135682308 100
Nicaragua 9.9948888320981 3.5037055967289 75.146946077179 2.662918476872 1.4847942754919 5.09583439816 1.2139023766931 0.86378737541528 0.033222591362126 100
Panama 8.6209182095356 7.2031410770309 17.291073559025 39.285556474368 3.9307650062809 7.5086638428956 15.73505368742 0.24113573669493 0.18369240674928 100
Central America 48.1 2.2 32.3 7 2.3 4.8 3.1 0.1 0.1 100
Bolivia (Plurinational State of) 5.8061667525204 0.85496959439119 12.833909779969 12.55293385693 55.767030820383 7.8706707965667 4.0119347868262 0.17460646646017 0.12777714595361 100
Colombia 14.904498889163 2.7323500370279 5.8234078005431 50.1164835843 6.1728585534436 14.68078869415 4.6809429770427 0.48984818563318 0.39882127869662 100
Ecuador 11.81665112784 1.6957265908743 2.4251701153584 60.188692372987 8.372041245147 11.998385817458 3.0073890597387 0.29138777952493 0.20455589107051 100
Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) 0.86252306137206 2.9577463586296 0.67273896106224 75.874197814281 2.5336134704878 14.017387057971 2.9234264268597 0.14667075318591 0.011696096150448 100
Andean Region 4.9 2.5 2.4 63.2 9.4 13.6 3.6 0.3 0.1 100
Argentina 0.36385043702935 0.14385038251992 0.15000994797075 29.880597096283 52.043476720386 15.696753145875 1.6287962410298 0.070753238541437 0.021912790364913 100
Brazil 4.2416096638529 0.88397439959445 0.77825099470049 11.032754244778 18.336840771214 44.525228539316 16.924916371786 3.1131707349611 0.16325427979682 100
Chile 3.0859935066076 1.1753893901082 1.1374736033306 54.890257651582 20.567179994526 12.193817466874 3.1073368302904 3.3848000381669 0.45775151851471 100
Paraguay 1.6514512100594 0.17601843079838 1.0426535182155 1.9189776935664 88.366635087417 3.1812505382827 3.5537421410731 0.086125226078718 0.023146154508656 100
Peru 12.280902410431 1.533563987457 3.0861902991832 20.929478931366 27.249592542819 22.088468246933 10.886493390139 1.1323020615904 0.8130081300813 100
Uruguay 4.1523383768913 0 0.69205639614856 2.6578977533242 51.534559834938 40.963147638698 0 0 0 100
Southern Cone 1.6 0.4 0.5 27.1 43.6 20.7 4.9 1.1 0.1 100
Latin America and the Caribbean 14.6 7.3 9 29.2 20.9 14.2 4 0.6 0.1 100
Total Americas 3.8 11.7 28.3 7.1 4 14.8 26.4 3.4 0.5 100
Rest of the World 1.2 0.8 0.2 1.3 1.3 30.1 46.5 17.7 0.9 100

 

What is evident from the table is that generally, most movements have occurred within the same region (blue shading) or from neighboring regions. Exceptions to this general rule are Canada, Brazil and Cuba,  where most immigrants come from outside the hemisphere.

On average, 64% of immigrants in the Caribbean come from the region itself, 63% of immigrants in the Andean region and 44% of those in the Southern Cone. In the case of Central America the average is lower (32%) because of a high level of immigrants in Mexico come from the United States. Much of this, however, does not consist of non-natives but rather of children born in the United States to Mexicans who later returned to their country of origin.

Readers interested in seeing a more detailed picture are referred to Annex Table A2, which gives the five main countries of origin and of destination (OECD and American countries) of immigrants to, and emigrants from each country of the Americas. For some countries of the Americas, as is the case with Mexico, single neighboring countries account for a large share of all immigrants. This is the case of the Dominican Republic (64% from Haiti), Costa Rica (72% from of Nicaragua), Ecuador (50% of Colombians), Paraguay (44% of Brazilians), Chile (38% of Peruvians) and Argentina (32% of Paraguayans), among others.

On the emigration side, the United States is the main country of residence of emigrants for all but a handful of countries of the Americas. For Nicaraguans, it is Costa Rica; for Bolivians, Chileans, Paraguayans and Uruguayans, it is Argentina; for Colombians, Venezuela; for Argentineans, Spain; for Suriname, the Netherlands; and for citizens of the United States, Mexico. On average, the main country of destination accounts for 57% of all emigrants from a country, which is a high concentration indeed. This percentage ranges from 20%-30% for expatriates from Brazil, Argentina and the United States to over 85% for those from El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. Geographical proximity, familiarity with the language and an often similar culture are factors which undoubtedly facilitate the importance of neighboring countries in the migration process.

Expatriation rates of native-born populations in the Americas

Although emigration from the Americas has decreased following the economic crisis of 2008, it is still the dominating feature of migration for Latin America and the Caribbean, as it has been since the 1960s.  Table 10 provides, among other statistics, an indication of expatriation rates from countries of the Americas. This rate is defined as the percentage of persons born in the country who are living abroad. The denominator thus includes not only native-born residents but also native-born expatriates while excluding resident immigrants, that is, foreign-born residents. It is thus a measure of expatriation by all persons ever born in the country.

Table 10. The immigrant and emigrant populations in and from the Americas, 2013

  Immigrant population Emigrant population Net migration
Country of origin Number of immigrants (2013) Immigration rate (%) Number of persons living abroad (2013) Expatriation rate (%) Net number of migrants Net migration rate (%)
Canada 7284069 20.704139287853 1307417 4.4766809523229 5976652 16.987954875636
United States of America 45785090 14.30557337044 2979930 1.0748341805702 42805160 13.374492810071
Canada and the United States 53069159 14.9 4287347 1.3947715541723 48781812 13.696259984071
Antigua and Barbuda 28733 31.93087736845 56700 48.070401519262 -27967 -31.079624381841
Bahamas 61343 16.255226910174 45950 12.694036427326 15393 4.0789773540307
Barbados 32280 11.340481443487 100224 28.425244194357 -67944 -23.86981633198
Cuba 16177 0.14359606551929 1476344 11.601191783995 -1460167 -12.961255869512
Dominica 6419 8.9149063233476 74793 53.28009574218 -68374 -94.959932225046
Dominican Republic 402506 3.8688508895966 1190441 10.636823945182 -787935 -7.573559215749
Grenada 11367 10.734015127907 57910 37.988716872212 -46543 -43.951197862074
Guyana 14770 1.8471435556951 462187 37.063021739653 -447417 -55.954192840787
Haiti 38061 0.36889889867284 1175098 10.258834564378 -1137037 -11.020511732489
Jamaica 34907 1.2538938348094 1094899 28.484213867238 -1059992 -38.075957078733
Saint Kitts and Nevis 5673 10.468527984352 28756 37.213034138261 -23083 -42.595633961359
Saint Lucia 12180 6.6822842659088 56027 24.777551742438 -43847 -24.055674729664
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 10260 9.380742962157 60295 37.824325002509 -50035 -45.747122233092
Suriname 41670 7.7270266060422 262006 34.492082800166 -220336 -40.857742603046
Trinidad and Tobago 32488 2.4223968814846 374092 22.230924882113 -341604 -25.470957408972
Caribbean 748834 2 6515722 15.07969202789 -5766888 -15.402313463331
Belize 50860 15.323892738777 62570 18.209598090859 -11710 -3.5281711358843
Costa Rica 419572 8.6116113449336 130364 2.8445383963807 289208 5.935922544511
El Salvador 41615 0.65634101280445 1526093 19.502955425044 -1484478 -23.412802931777
Guatemala 72764 0.4704101698174 1049865 6.3839804968032 -977101 -6.3168358987789
Honduras 27503 0.33964015407855 659606 7.5558051733426 -632103 -7.8059688148024
Mexico 1103460 0.90201778843559 13212419 9.8276447043922 -12108959 -9.8984072077259
Nicaragua 41482 0.68221610208934 655117 9.7864646145053 -613635 -10.091887512791
Panama 158417 4.0996384734626 149952 3.8890942123425 8465 0.21906386106201
Central America 1915673 1.1444543234536 17445986 9.5376113018565 -15530313 -9.2780625176828
Bolivia (Plurinational State of) 154330 1.4462291026314 764862 6.7796505004728 -610532 -5.7213059449734
Colombia 129632 0.26827034520209 2448385 4.8348684062163 -2318753 -4.7986042624381
Ecuador 359315 2.2831222862447 1144408 6.926163581598 -785093 -4.9885569071002
Peru 104919 0.34540548874042 1373387 4.3401084519119 -1268468 -4.1759434372381
Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) 1171331 3.8524026493225 630686 2.1118206923644 540645 1.7781329362435
Andean Region 1919527 1.4 6361728 4.4942923442883 -4442201 -3.2399030594516
Argentina 1885678 4.5496955261039 980580 2.4187277577833 905098 2.1837876462925
Brazil 599678 0.29929738397153 1769639 0.87809380199022 -1169961 -0.58392381686291
Chile 398251 2.2602587965703 604008 3.3884557850244 -205757 -1.1677662308592
Paraguay 185776 2.7310782610869 770441 10.429743764688 -584665 -8.5951138549563
Uruguay 73528 2.1581057227605 336741 9.1748166009359 -263213 -7.7255124796672
Southern Cone 3142911 1.2 4461409 1.6948855255184 -1318498 -0.50341788233902
Latin America and the Caribbean 7726945 1.3 34784845 5.5974737735266 -27057900 -4.552286835224
Total Americas 60796104 6.2 39072192 4.0748656494904 21723912 2.2154093032014
Rest of the World 170726111 2.8 192450023 3.145078429176 -21723912 -0.35628383522424
All countries 231522215 3.2 231522215 3.2 0 0

 

For the Americas, Canada and the United States show relatively low expatriation rates, at over 4% and 1% respectively. For the rest of the hemisphere, one observes a decline in expatriation rates as one moves south from the United States, with the highest rates in the Caribbean (15%) and the lowest in the Southern Cone (1.7%), with Central America at 9.5% and the Andean Region at 4.5%. On an individual country basis, however, there is considerable variation within regions.

The small island states of the Caribbean have generally very high expatriation rates, often over 25%, with Dominica clocking in at 53% and Antigua and Barbuda at 48%, while the Bahamas, Haiti and the Dominican Republic are between 10% and 13%. In Central America the contrast is between Costa Rica and Panama at 3-4% and Belize and El Salvador at 18-19%. The Andean Region shows less variability with expatriation rates for all countries ranging from about 2 to 7%. Finally, the Southern Cone sees Brazil at a mere 0.9% and Paraguay at over 10%.

Overlying this diversity, however, is a fundamental relationship between the size of a country (measured here by its native-born population) and the expatriation rate. Indeed the correlation between (the logarithm of) the size of the native-born population and the expatriation rate for countries of Latin America and the Caribbean is fully -0.83 (Figure 7). The chart identifies a number of countries for which the expatriation rates are higher (above the line) or lower (below the line) than one would expect on the basis of the general relationship. The reason for the association between population size and expatriation is that employment opportunities tend to be more numerous and diverse in larger countries, reducing the incentive to look abroad when conditions are difficult at home.

Figure 7. Expatriation rate and population size, 2013

Expatriation, in other words, is a way of effectively increasing the size of one’s home labor market and thereby, of available opportunities for employment. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of highly specialized and highly skilled occupations. Persons from small countries wishing to study and work in nanotechnology or robotics, to take two extreme examples, will generally have to study abroad and are unlikely to return to their countries of origin for employment after the completion of their studies, because of the absence of job opportunities. These examples concern admittedly uncommon professions but reflect nonetheless a general phenomenon, namely the generally greater openness and exposure of small countries to international trade and migration, because of limited domestic markets, whether for products, services, or skills.

This is clearly not the whole story with respect to expatriation. Wage differentials evidently play an important role and can indeed overcome the standard large-country/low-expatriation relationship. The most notable example for the Americas is evidently that of Mexico, which has lost almost 10% of its population to emigration, as a result of the plentiful and relatively higher-paying jobs available in the labor market of its northern neighbor compared to the more limited opportunities available at home. In absolute terms Mexico has the largest emigrant population of the Americas (13.2 million) representing more than a quarter of all emigrants from the hemisphere.

At the other end of the spectrum are countries like the Bahamas, Belize, Costa Rica and Panama, whose expatriation rates are much smaller than one would expect on the basis of their populations, for reasons undoubtedly related to relatively favorable social and working conditions in those countries.  

If country size appears to affect the likelihood of migrating, it is, however, wage differentials, specific employment opportunities (and knowledge of these) as well as the costs of migration that determine the country of destination. The generally lower costs involved in migrating to neighboring countries will tend to favor these as destinations, all things being equal. This is indeed what one observes for many countries of the Americas. However, for some migrants, migration to more distant destinations, such as Spain for Latin American countries, and the ability to finance migration to these destinations may overcome the cost advantages of neighboring countries.

On the immigration side, the various regions of Latin America and the Caribbean have more similar immigration rates (this time expressed as the immigrant share of the resident population). The rates for all four regions range between 1% and 2%.

With few exceptions (the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela and Argentina), expatriation dominates immigration in the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, often strongly so, and this is likely to maintain itself for some time, until economic development at home reduces the incentive to look abroad as a means of improving one’s livelihood.



[1] The foreign-born population in Table 8 includes persons born abroad who were citizens of their current country of residence at birth. 

[2] Note, however, that, the stock of unauthorized migrants has decreased after the onset of the economic crisis (2008).

[3] Almost three quarters of these jobs have been in sectors of the economy where lesser and medium-skilled skilled jobs are common, among them the farming sector (25%), building, grounds-keeping and maintenance (19%), construction (17%) and food preparation and serving (12%) (Passel and Cohn 2009).

[4] The debate concerning immigration in the United States is extremely polarized, with attempts to reform the immigration system repeatedly foundering in Congress. See the country note for the United States for an overview of recent policy developments in this area.