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How Many Americans Really Live in Mexico?
And Who Cares, Anyway?

By Bill Masterson

Published: 2000

How many Americans live in Mexico? 600,000? 500,000? Less? More?

Americans (as well as the rest of the world) are becoming more comfortable with Mexico. As the relationships between the North American countries grow closer, more Americans than ever before are considering a move to Mexico, whether it be for retirement, to start a business, look for work or just to travel. One of the key factors that comes into play when most people consider moving to another country is how many of their fellow countrymen are already there. For all of our professed desire for independence, when push comes to shove, most of us really want to be in relatively close proximity to some people who are similar to us.

It is often said that more Americans live in Mexico than in any other country. Several documents published by the U.S. Department of State say that, "More than 500,000 Americans currently reside in Mexico". This same figure is often quoted in travel articles written for newspapers and magazines. Travel and retirement guides quote similar numbers.

Persons promoting the Lake Chapala area of the state of Jalisco as a retirement-living option for foreigners claim that "more than 200,000 Americans live in Jalisco, the largest English-speaking population in the world, outside of the United States", and "60,000 Americans live along the shores of Lake Chapala." San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, is often said to have "5,000 Americans residing there." When I first moved to Mexico in 1993, I was told that more than 50,000 Americans live in the Federal District (another often quoted "fact"). After spending six years in the Federal District, I can say that there are not that many Americans around, in the churches, the stores, on the street, etc. There are a lot, of course, but certainly not 50,000.

While doing research for an ongoing project, I came across all of these numbers being quoted for Mexico, Jalisco, Lake Chapala, San Miguel de Allende, the Federal District, and other parts of Mexico. I had no reason to disbelieve the numbers. After all, the numbers must be correct because the U.S. Government is using them! The number of Americans living in Mexico plays an important part in my project, so I set out to verify the source of the numbers.

I quickly learned that the numbers are not supported by the facts.

Seeing that this is a census year in the U.S. (as well as in Mexico), I began the verification process at the U.S. Bureau of the Census, hoping that there would be an estimate of the population of U.S. citizens living abroad. The Census Bureau told me that they did not have such statistics. They referred me to the Bureau of Consular Affairs of the U.S. State Department, and the Embassy of Mexico in the United States. However, Mexican census officials, likewise, could not furnish me with an estimate. Nor could the Bureau of Consular Affairs provide me with the source of the figures contained in the reports that they publish. Instead, they referred me to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico. Likewise, Mexico's Embassy in the U.S. is unaware of the number of Americans living in Mexico. They also referred me to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico!

What started as a seemingly simple task of verifying the numbers gradually turned into a case for Sherlock Holmes.

The next logical step was to put the question to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico. I did, but the Embassy could not verify the 500,000 number, either. Embassy staff agreed, however, to undertake the task of contacting the Mexican governmental agency responsible for such statistics, INI -- Instituto Nacional de Inmigracion -- in hope of obtaining the ‘official’ number.

INI issues all forms of visas for foreigners in Mexico and maintains statistics. Earlier this year, I read a newspaper article in the Mexico City daily newspaper Reforma that quoted the Director of Inmigracion as saying that 200,000 foreigners, from all countries, had been issued visas of all types (exclusive of the FMT tourist card). In fact, it was this article that caught my attention and first caused me to question the 500,000 American number that is so widely quoted.

Less than two weeks from the time I requested the information, the persistent staff of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico received a response from INI and forwarded it to me.

The official number of U.S. citizens residing in Mexico, including students, business persons temporarily in Mexico, immigrants, and legal residents is 124,082.

Okay, fine. But... what happened to the "other" 300,000 or so Americans cited by less official sources?

The Embassy staff who assisted me in this verification commented that, "The number strikes us as low . . . There are certainly MANY Americans who cross into Mexico via land border who never register with immigration. We at the consular services see a great number of Americans who have been here as long as a year without so much as a passport." They were quick to add, "In any case, the Mexican authorities are the official source for such data."

Had I not seen the earlier 200,000 total foreign population figure from Inmigracion I, too, would have been surprised by the number of 124,082, some 375,918 lower than what has previously been stated as factual. This new number does not include those Americans in Mexico on a tourist card (FMT) and those who have somehow slipped through the cracks of the bureaucracy. However, I find it difficult to believe that more than an additional 15,000 to 20,000 persons make up these FMT holders and "slipped through" categories; certainly, 375,000 people have not slipped through.

Therefore, the best factual estimate of Americans living in Mexico is below 150,000. The statements I earlier referenced about Jalisco are not true, and those being made about other areas of Mexico are also highly suspect.

So, who cares? Some of us will care more than do others. Those making decisions as to visiting or retiring or relocating to Mexico to start a business all have an interest, in varying degrees. Many of my own ideas and assumptions about Americans, and foreigners, living in Mexico have changed since I started this verification process. We all, now, have a better foundation from which to work.

Bill Masterson recently returned to the United States after living and working in Mexico for six years as a corporate trainer. He continues to travel to Mexico for work and pleasure.

Carl adds: Great work, Bill, but what about Canadians in Mexico? At times it seems that Canadians outnumber Yanks at Lakeside. Is this true throughout Mexico's "expat" communities? Please... what are the true numbers?

Another Perspective from Linda Fox:

I thought your article about the number of US folks living in Mexico was pretty good but also thought it needed more clarification..... (more)

Question revisited...


Bill Masterson reexamines the Question

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