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versión On-line ISSN 2448-7228versión impresa ISSN 1870-3550

Norteamérica vol.11 no.2 México jul./dic. 2016 


Assessing the Relationship between Remittance Receipt and Migration Intentions among Mexican Adolescents Living along the U.S.-Mexico Border

Análisis de la relación entre la recepción de remesas y las intenciones de migrar entre los adolescentes mexicanos que viven en la frontera México-Estados Unidos

David Becerra*

Elizabeth Kiehne** 

*Assistant Professor, Southwest Borderlands Scholar, School of Social Work, Arizona State University, USA,

**Graduate Student at Arizzona State University, School of Social Work, USA,


One of the highest binational population and remittance exchanges in the world occurs between Mexico and the United States. Building on social capital theory, this study investigated the relationship between household remittance receipt and the migration intentions of 980 Mexican adolescents living along the border. Hierarchical regressions revealed that the receipt of remittances predicted the self-reported desire to live in and intentions to move to the United States after high school graduation. Having a parent in the U.S. was related to intentions to migrate, but did not change the relationship between remittances and migration intentions. The author draws implications for policy and future research.

Key words: migration; remittances; Mexico; social capital theory; immigration


Uno de los intercambios binacionales de población y remesas más intenso es el que tiene lugar entre México y Estados Unidos. Este estudio, basado en la teoría del capital social, investiga la relación entre la recepción de remesas y las intenciones de migrar de 980 adolescentes mexicanos que viven en la frontera. Algunas retrospectivas autorizadas han revelado que la recepción de remesas fue determinante en el deseo de migrar a Estados Unidos después de graduarse de preparatoria según ellos mismos reportan. Contar con uno de los padres en ese país estaba relacionado con las intenciones de migrar, pero esto no cambiaba la relación entre las remesas y esas mismas intenciones. El autor muestra las implicaciones de todo lo anterior en las políticas públicas y para las investigaciones futuras.

Palabras clave: Migración; remesas; México; teoría del capital social; inmigración


Mexican migration to the United States represents one of the largest flows of migrants in the world (Borjas, 2007; Ortmeyer and Quinn, 2012). Economic hardships derived from a number of macro-level circumstances push Mexican migrants out of their home country (Martin, 2010; Pisani and Yoskowitz, 2002). Simultaneously, pull factors encourage migration to the United States, such as the prospects of reuniting with family members, higher earning potential, and the ability to remit earnings to relatives in Mexico (Mooney, 2004; Orrenius and Nicholson, 2009). Roughly US$21.5 billion were remitted to Mexican households from migrants residing in the United States in 2009 (Coronado and Canas, 2010). Studies conducted in Europe, the South Pacific, and northern Africa have found that the receipt of remittances increases migration intentions, thus promoting chain migration (Dimova and Wolff, 2009; Leeves, 2009; van Dalen, Groenewold, and Fokkema, 2005). In the Western Hemisphere, this relationship remains largely unexplored despite the fact that high Mexico-U.S. migration rates and the flow of remittances between the two countries are among the largest in the world (Borjas, 2007; Ortmeyer and Quinn, 2012). This represents a significant gap in the literature and one this study sought to fill.

To my knowledge, this study was the first to explore the relationship between remittances and Mexico-U.S. migration, among Mexican adolescents living along the border. To better understand factors influencing the migration intentions of the next generation of migrants, a survey was conducted among a sample of adolescents and young adults living in the border city of Tijuana, Mexico, who were pursuing higher levels of education than the average Mexican. Guided by social capital theory and controlling for having a migrant parent, this study looked at whether household receipt of remittances contributes to subsequent future migration by these Mexican teens. In addition, the potential interaction effect on migration intentions of receiving remittances and having a migrant parent living in the United States was assessed.


Worldwide, just over 214 000 000 individuals live in a country different from the one where they were born (UN, 2011). The United States hosts more of these migrants than any other nation; it is home to nearly one-fifth of all global migrants (43 000 000) (UN, 2011), a disproportionate number of whom are from Mexico. Roughly 28 percent of all immigrants living in the United States are Mexican (12 000 000) (Martin, 2010; Zong and Batalova, 2016). Despite the two countries sharing a highly militarized border, the U.S.-Mexico border is among the most often crossed by international migrants in the world (Massey, Durand, and Malone, 2003; Ortmeyer and Quinn, 2012). Almost 9 percent of Mexico’s native-born population resides in the United States (Borjas, 2007).

Push/Pull Factors in Mexican Migration

Mexican migration to the United States is largely wage labor migration resulting from economic conditions that both push and pull migrants across the border (Massey, Durand, and Malone, 2003; Wilson, 1993). Push factors are negative conditions that propel migrants out of the sending country, while pull factors are positive conditions that draw them to the receiving country (Jenkins, 1977). Several earlier studies reported push factors to be stronger precipitators of Mexican migration (Jenkins, 1977; Frisbie, 1975); however, this conclusion has not been reported in the more recent literature. Instead, push and pull factors are considered to work together synergistically to drive and sustain Mexican migration to the United States (Massey, Durand, and Malone, 2003).

Economic hardship is the primary push factor causing Mexican nationals to move north. Jobs are lacking in Mexico, both in quantity and quality: overall, employment is scarce and wages are poor (Martin, 2010; Pisani and Yoskowitz, 2002). Mexico has 112 million inhabitants, but in 2010, had a formal sector labor force of only 45 million (Martin, 2010). Many factors contribute to the lack of job opportunities, including population growth in recent decades and institutional shifts triggered by the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) (Ong, 2010; Martin, 2010). In the two decades following the 1994 enactment of NAFTA, countless Mexican nationals lost their livelihoods and economic niches in their home country, particularly those working in agriculture; soon thereafter, the number of Mexican immigrants in the United States tripled in size, reaching roughly 12 000 000 (Martin, 2010).

Economic incentive is a pull factor drawing many Mexican migrants to the United States. The significant wage differential between the two countries provides a strong incentive to migrate (Martin, 2010; Pisani and Yoskowitz, 2002). In 2013, the gross national income (GNI) per capita in the United States was US$43 730 higher than Mexico’s (World Bank, 2014). Compared to Mexico, employment in the United States is not just better paid, but also more readily available. The United States has a consistent, strong demand for Mexican migrant workers in construction, hospitality, agriculture, and manufacturing (Kochhar, 2005). This represents an economic opportunity relatively close to home that lures many Mexicans to migrate every year. Reuniting with migrant relatives in the United States is another significant pull factor driving Mexican migration and one that promotes chain migration (Mooney, 2004; Wilson, 1993). Additionally, the opportunity to repatriate a portion of earnings to relatives in the home country is motivating factor (Amuedo-Dorantes, Bansak, and Pozo, 2005).


Across the globe, over US$460 billion are remitted by individuals annually (World Bank, 2013). According to the new economics of labor migration, individuals in developing countries work as a coherent unit to function in limited economies and, together, make up for labor-market deficiencies (Stark, 1991). Migrant remittances are the return on the investment of sending family members abroad (Sana and Massey, 2005; Stark, 1991). Remitted earnings act as a form of insurance and informal loan system in lieu of a public safety net and formal borrowing system (Lindstrom, 1996; Sana and Massey, 2005).

Worldwide, the United States is the largest sender of remittances (Mishra, 2007), and Mexico receives the largest share of them (Suro et al., 2002). In 2009, Mexican households received over US$21.5 billion in repatriated earnings from the United States (Coronado and Canas, 2010), and remittances are one of the country’s largest sources of foreign exchange (Ortmeyer and Quinn, 2012).

Repatriated migrant earnings have a variety of impacts at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels in Mexico. At the household level, studies suggest remittances are primarily spent on the consumption of routine goods and family maintenance costs (Massey and Basem, 1992). However, some studies have found that they enable migrants and their relatives to invest in homes and other productive economic activities (Mooney, 2004). At the community level, evidence suggests remittances alter local distribution of income, increase consumer spending, and promote social mobility; this produces greater inequity and a swelling sense of deprivation among non-migrant households resulting in increased migration (Reichert, 1981, 1982; Stark, Taylor, and Yitzhaki, 1986, 1988). Remittances also increase the demand for housing and farmland, inflating land and housing prices (Massey and Basem, 1992). In effect, this further perpetuates migration by forcing nationals to migrate in order to compete in the changing economic climate (Massey and Basem, 1992). At the broader economic level, several studies have concluded that remittances are rarely applied toward investment, precluding them from being income-generating or job-producing; thus, they fail to reduce out-migration (Massey and Bassem, 1992; Reichert, 1981). Similarly, Chami, Fullenkamp, and Jahjah (2003) found an inverse relationship between remittances and gross domestic product growth. It is plausible that several of the direct and indirect effects of remittances on households, communities, and the broader Mexican economy serve to perpetuate migration.

Social Capital Theory

Social capital theory helps explain the forces that perpetuate migration (Massey, Durand, and Malone, 2003; Palloni et al., 2001). Social capital is the accumulation of resources resulting from an individual or group’s formal and informal social networks; the defining feature of social capital is that it can be converted into economic and social benefits (Coleman, 1994). The migrant network is a form of social capital gained through interpersonal relationships and membership in social organizations that produces a chain migration effect (Massey, Goldring, and Durand, 1994; Mooney, 2004). Chain migration is a pattern of migration whereby one or more individuals migrate internationally, later sending for or having family members or close friends join them in the new country (Castañeda and Buck, 2011). Through reciprocal ties between migrant and non-migrant family, friends, and community members, the migrant network increases access to information on the migration experience (Massey, Durand, and Malone, 2003; Massey and García-España, 1987). The migrant network also functions to lower the risks and costs associated with migration, while increasing the expected benefit. It provides social, emotional, and financial support throughout the migration process (Massey, Durand, and Malone, 2003; Massey and García-España, 1987).

Massey and García-España (1987) describe four categories of costs the migrant network minimizes, including: a) lowering expenditures on practical aspects of the migrant’s trip (for example, food and lodging); b) mediating information and search costs associated with finding and securing a job; c) mitigating opportunity costs resulting from missed income due to transition time; and, d) diminishing the psychological costs associated with leaving home and traveling to unfamiliar territory. Wilson (1993) adds to this, suggesting the migrant network also decreases migrant costs through introduction to new labor markets and the provision of informal loans via remittances. Accordingly, social capital provided through the migrant network increases the probability that others will migrate, thereby perpetuating migration (Massey, 1990; Palloni et al., 2001).

Remittances can be thought of as another benefit accrued to the individual from the migrant network and, thus, a form of social capital. As such, remittances have the potential to perpetuate chain migration (Massey, Goldring, and Durand, 1994; Mooney, 2004). Several previous studies have tested and supported this proposition.

Prior Research

Three studies have tested the impact of remittances on chain migration in various countries. Van Dalen and his colleagues (2005) assessed them in Turkey, Morocco, and Egypt, and cross-sectional data revealed that individuals who received remittances in the first two countries were significantly more likely to intend to migrate. In Morocco, individuals who lived in households that received remittances were twice as likely to intend to migrate compared to those who did not receive remittances (14 percent vs. 7 percent). In Turkey, 36 percent of remittance-receiving individuals intended to migrate, whereas only 24 percent of those who did not receive remittances had that intention (van Dalen, Groenewold, and Fokkema, 2005). Using longitudinal data, Dimova and Wolff (2009) examined the effect of remittances on chain migration in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Individuals from households that received remittances were 32 percent more likely to plan to migrate than those that non-receiving households. Furthermore, when participants were asked if they intended to migrate that year, those who received remittances were over two times more likely to say yes. Healthy, young, highly-educated participants who received remittances were the most likely to intend to migrate (Dimova and Wolff, 2009). Using cross-sectional data from Fiji and Tonga, Leeves (2009) examined the relationship between the receipt of remittances and intentions to migrate within the following two years. In both countries, receiving remittances was a predictor of migration intentions. Intentions to migrate were strongest among individuals in remittance-receiving households with a family member abroad. This may indicate that having a migrant family member moderates the relationship between remittances and migration intentions (Leeves, 2009).

This Study

The northward flow of Mexican migrants and the southbound flow of remitted U. S. earnings are substantial and among the highest migrant exchanges in the world. Nonetheless, to my knowledge, the impact of remittances on Mexican chain migration to the United States has yet to be examined. Building on social capital theory, the purpose of the present study was to examine the relationship between the receipt of remittances, a form of capital and derivative of one’s migrant network, and migration intentions among a sample of highly educated Mexican adolescents living along the Mexico-U.S. border.

Researchers studying Mexican migration to the United States often sample individuals who have lower educational levels, earn lower wages, and are undocumented (Hanson, 2007; Kanaiaupuni, 2000). Studies also tend to be conducted with Mexican migrants from central and southern Mexico, the region the majority of migrants are from (