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Question Revisited


...national identity cards for foreigners

by Bill Masterson

Published: February 2002

One million Americans now live in Mexico, and 600,000 of that number are in Mexico City, according to research conducted by a university professor in Mexico. These new projections, substantially greater than what both the Mexican and U.S. Government agencies heretofore have suggested, appear to be nothing more than the byproduct of sloppy research. While the guessing game continues, Mexico has announced a national identity card program for foreign residents, and the creation of a database to track their whereabouts. The national identity card program may finally produce an the answer to the question, "How many Americans live in Mexico?"

The Americans-in-Mexico question was discussed in an earlier article I wrote for this website; instead of moving closer to an answer, however, it now seems that we've moved further away (then again, maybe not). Reports of the new estimates are muddying-up the waters of the discussion, but post-September 11th immigration rule changes in Mexico hold the promise of producing more reliable demographic information about all foreigners in Mexico, not just Americans.

Discussing these new estimates at a September, 2001 meeting of The American Society in Mexico City, Universidad de las Américas-Puebla, social anthropologist Professor Mary Alcocer-Berriozábal, Ph.D., reported that research she conducted for her doctoral thesis (University of Kansas, 2000) indicated that the number of U.S. citizens living in Mexico is 1 million, and that 600,000 of those live in Mexico City.

Originally estimating that 600,000 Americans resided in Mexico, Professor Alcocer changed the number to 1 million. Describing the methodology of arriving at her initial projection, she said, "According to the 1994 and 1995 Statistical Abstract of the U.S., there are 2,301,000 American citizens living outside of the country. This means that almost 2 percent of the American population lives outside of the United States, 600,000 of which reside in Mexico, thereby making Mexico the leading country of American citizens living abroad." When I asked her to describe the formula she used for determining what percentage of Americans living abroad were living in Mexico (as compared to other countries), she didn't answer. Without an explanation of her methodology, I set out to review the source of the U.S. population data she relied upon, and that exercise led me to conclude that she used inaccurate numbers.

Of the 1 million Americans she now projects to be residing in Mexico, the Professor estimates that 600,000 are located in Mexico City, which she calls, "the largest U.S. expatriate community in the world" (she further reported that the Americans living in Mexico City earn an average annual salary of US$64,000). The professor said that she changed her projections because, "I interviewed and sent out questionnaires to a small number of Americans who live in Mexico City.

I asked them about the number and the percentages they believe are of Americans living in Mexico City and around the country, and their figures came to be that of about a million Americans living around the country of Mexico, having the majority of that percentage in Mexico City." When I asked for the number of people who supplied completed questionnaires and/or were interviewed by her, she didn't answer. By her own admission, the Professor’s interaction with Americans in Mexico was limited to, "a small number of Americans who live in Mexico City."

U.S. government hasn't a clue

Most of us from the U.S. would probably say that we -– more or less -– accept as reasonably accurate the demographic data collected and reported by our government. However, when I researched the Americans-in-Mexico topic last year, I was surprised to learn that the U.S. government didn't have a clue as to where its own projection of "more than 500,000" U.S. citizen-residents (in Mexico) number came from. The often repeated statement that, "more Americans live in Mexico than in any other foreign country", is accepted as sacred fact by many people, especially by print and broadcast media, even though no reasonable substantiation has been provided.

So -– if this statement is correct -– I think it reasonable to expect that the U.S. government could point to the methodology it employed in arriving at its number, or direct us to source data…but it can't. From what I've seen, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico has demonstrated little interest in determining the accuracy of the various population estimates.

In the wake of the September 11th events, the U.S. government is no longer commenting on Americans-in-Mexico questions. While seeking to update my information (and in an attempt to verify some of Professor Alcocer’s information for this article), I asked the U.S. Embassy several questions, to which an Embassy spokesperson responded, "I am sorry but for security reasons the U.S. Embassy in Mexico cannot provide you with the information you requested."

However, last year, when it was answering questions on the subject (number of Americans living in Mexico), a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy told me, "I regret to inform you that I have not found the answer to your question yet. The Mexican Immigration Service certainly has the best statistics. I am surprised that the Mexican Embassy could not help (the U.S. Embassy had first told me that they had no idea where the numbers came from, and that I should contact the Mexican Embassy in the U.S.). I myself have been trying to get the facts from the Mexican Immigration Service."

Days after the preceding reply, I heard back from the spokesperson, who said, "I have finally received a concrete number from the Mexican Immigration…regarding the number of U.S. citizens residing in Mexico…The number strikes us as low…124,082…In any case, the Mexican authorities are the official source for such data."

The U.S. Embassy has not, to my knowledge, challenged this data provided by Mexico.

The visa data provided by Mexico's INM is clearly in conflict with what professor Alcocer reportedly told the American Society, "But while US citizens tend to live in U.S. communities (making reference to the wealthiest neighborhoods in the Federal District), about 42 percent have Mexican immigrant status…". If her projections are correct, that there are 1 million Americans in Mexico (600,000 in Mexico City) and 42% of them have Mexican immigration status, then there should have been 420,000 non-tourist card visas issued for all of Mexico, and 252,000 in Mexico City alone (the accuracy of which is not recognized by INM). Alcocer is further reported to have said, that "…about one-third of US citizens living in Mexico City [200,000) are married to Mexicans" (this is a claim I've not heard made before, nor as a former resident of, and now a regular visitor to, the city have I seen evidence of).

While the Mexican Census [up to and including the 1990 Census] regularly included a country-by-country breakdown of the number of foreign-born residents, the question was not included in the 2000 questionnaire, from what I've learned and from what El Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (INEGI) told me. (If that information is still available it'll take Sherlock Holmes to find it!)

INEGI did report 88,000 American-born residents in 1960; 97,000 in 1970; 157,000 in 1980; and 195,000 in 1990. It's unclear just what these numbers represent…were only Mexican citizens counted (and recorded as foreign-born) or were expats living in-country at the time of the Census added, also?; I've been unable to find the answer to this question.

Of the U.S. citizens residing in Mexico, I think it is generally acknowledged that relatively few of these people formally register their presence in-country with one of the consular offices. (U.S. citizens in Mexico really aren't different than their countrymen in other parts of the world, from what I've read on the citizen-registration issue.) In addition, there are an undetermined number of U.S. citizens who spend varying amounts of time in Mexico on a tourist card (FMT) or with no visa whatsoever (particularly in the approximately 20 mile-wide border zone).

Professor Alcocer told me that an employee of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico reported to her that, "for each American that does report him/herself to the American consulate/embassy in Mexico, he (the official) believes there to be an additional 4 to 5 Americans who do not report because it is not mandatory." That statement doesn't seem far fetched, and when I asked her for the number of Americans the Embassy employee told her had registered, the Professor didn't answer the question.

Why Bother?

Some people have asked, "Who cares how many Americans are in Mexico?" And my response to such questions is that the value of accurate demographic information goes well beyond just having numbers to talk about on message boards and in chat rooms. It's fairly obvious that the number of Americans relocating to -– or spending increased amounts of time in -– Mexico is increasing yearly, and that the largest group of American migrants to Mexico are now (and will continue to be) seniors. There are also likely to be an increasing number of Americans who relocate to Mexico (with their families) to pursue employment and/or business opportunities.

These citizen-resident groups have valid service needs (needs that will only increase as the groups’ numbers rise and time passes); if reasonably accurate demographics are unavailable to the authorities, they will be unprepared for the service demands made upon their respective offices and, I think, it's reasonable to assume that many of these needs will go unmet and conflicts (small and/or large) will arise. These needs exist no matter the number of citizen-residents, and may include the following: compliance with Mexican immigration laws and regulations, U.S. Passport Office services, U.S. Social Security Administration payments, U.S. Veterans Administration pensions and veterans health care issues, private health care and health care insurance (including enrollment in Mexico’s IMSS), registration of trusts and estates, assistance with deaths and death/survivor benefits and the transport of remains or burial in Mexico, real estate purchases, international and in-country banking and financial transactions, issues involving consumer fraud, and crime and the Mexican criminal justice system, and more.

For some time, I've thought that the U.S. Embassy in Mexico hasn't acted strongly enough in a pro-active manner to advance the interests of the U.S. citizen-residents in-country. I've heard no suggestions that Americans expect special treatment from Mexico, but rather that Mexico (and the U.S. government) recognize that whatever the size of the group, the group exists (and its likely growth and its demographics change) and that unmet needs/wants may exist, and that the situation, if left unattended, will likely, at some point, transform into problems. I'm not suggesting an imminent conflict, only that it's smart public policy to do everything possible to anticipate problems before they arise.

Additionally, access to reliable demographics on this group will help both Mexican and foreign businesses fashion the marketing and provision of their goods and services to it, and in turn the U.S. citizen-residents will live less stressful and more fulfilling lives in Mexico; these sorts of things are, at present, offered in a rather haphazard manner in most parts of the country, and it is important to keep in mind that not all group needs are government service-related…the quality of ones life consists of many parts.

Expat, Immigrant, Tourist, or Resident?

At the core of the differences in opinions on this question seems to be a couple of very important and unanswered foundation-type questions: "Who's covered under the definition of "U.S. citizen?"; and, "What constitutes a "resident?" When I started to look at this issue a year ago I decided that, for the purpose of my research, I would exclude Mexican nationals who are naturalized U.S. citizens and chose to return to live in Mexico from my definition of the term "U.S. citizen".

Then, for my definition of the term "resident," I adopted the definition of "reside" as contained in Merriam-Webster’s® Collegiate Dictionary: "reside: to dwell permanently or continuously; occupy a place as one's legal domicile", and for the term "resident," I embraced the same definition as used by The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000: "resident: One who resides in a particular place permanently or for an extended period."

What's missing in all of the projections floating around are standards by which the numbers can be comparatively measured and evaluated. This discussion is taking place using classic apples-to-oranges comparisons, which just frustrates everyone.

National identity cards for foreigners

There's no doubt that the most reliable source for the immigration statistics many of us have been searching for should be the Mexican government, but, for many different reasons, the government has been unable or unwilling to address the issue seriously. While, some U.S. citizens residing in Mexico have complied with the regulations necessary to obtain an FM3, FM2 or FM1, others are in the country both long and short-term on a tourist card (FMT). Others live in the border zone where FMT’s aren't required and do so without obtaining government transit documents, and yet other Americans in Mexico have no FMT or are in-country with expired FMTs. Sorting out the visa matter hasn't been too high on the Mexican government's priority list, until recently.

In early 2001, Mexico began testing a newly designed visa document that has an imbedded computer chip containing personal information about the bearer (i.e. name, nationality, address in Mexico, occupation, etc.). New document reading and data storage systems and their software are also being designed and tested. At the end of November, 2001, the government disclosed that it had started creating an electronic database on foreigners in-country, and that this database would serve as the forerunner for a future national identification card system for all resident-foreigners that it hoped to launch in the first quarter of 2002. The cost to acquire the national identity card is projected to be 50 pesos, while other details are expected to be disclosed sometime in March, 2002 at the earliest.

Although Mexico has been moving toward tighter border controls, the events of September 11th moved the issue to the front-burner. In describing the new expatriate tracking system, Felipe de Jesus Preciado, Director of Instituto Nacional de Migración, stressed that the goal of his department was to track when and where foreigners entered and departed the country. In its attempts to prevent future attacks by foreign terrorists in the U.S., the U.S. has asked Mexico to share its database of foreigners; Mexico has said that it will comply with the request. Additionally, Mexico will, ultimately, cross-reference visa data with its taxpayer database to ensure compliance with income tax laws, and with various national law enforcement agencies to locate foreigners wanted by foreign governments.

Where does that leave us?

As I stated at the beginning of this article, these new population projections of Americans residing in Mexico "appear to be nothing more than the byproduct of sloppy research."; that’s the bad news. Rather than helping to answer the question, these "projections" only cause confusion and mislead people. Although I'm open to the proposition of being corrected by numbers that can reasonably be substantiated, I've seen nothing over the course of the past year that would cause me to change the opinion I expressed in my prior article, that, "the best factual estimate of Americans living in Mexico is below 150,000."

The good news -– from a data gathering viewpoint -– is that the national identity card and the data it might produce ought to narrow the range of numbers being bandied-about, and offer a better idea as to how many citizen-residents are residing in which parts of Mexico. Barring unforeseen revelations on the subject, it looks as if we'll all just have to sit and wait and see what results from the national ID card program. This program, however, is bound to be controversial in the expat community and, like most government programs in any country, is likely to get off to a shaky start.

So, "How many Americans live in Mexico?" The answer is, "We still don't know."

Part 1: How Many Americans Live in Mexico?
Other Articles by Bill Masterson
Live & Retire In Mexico
Working In Mexico

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