Self-Selection among Undocumented Immigrants from Mexico

Pia M. Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny
Working Paper 2001-1
February 2001

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This paper examines the effect of changes in migration determinants on the skill level of undocumented immigrants from Mexico. The authors focus on the effect of changes in economic conditions, migrant networks, and border enforcement on the educational attainment of Mexican-born men who cross the border illegally. Although previous research indicates that illegal aliens from Mexico tend to be unskilled relative to U.S. natives and that economic conditions, networks, and border enforcement affect the size of illegal immigrant flows across the border, the interaction of these variables has not been investigated. Results from hazard models using data from the Mexican Migration Project indicate that improvements in U.S. and Mexican economic conditions are associated with a decline in the average educational levels of undocumented immigrants. Stricter border enforcement is associated with higher average skill levels. Access to a network of previous immigrants appears to lower the cost of migrating but has no differential effect by skill level.

JEL classification: F22, J61

Key words: undocumented immigrants, illegal aliens, Mexican migration

The authors gratefully acknowledge Gordon Hanson for providing the data on Mexican economic conditions and border enforcement and Steve Logan of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for providing the agricultural wage data. They also thank Janet Currie, Andrew Davenport, Wei Hu, and Marie Mora for helpful comments. The views expressed here are the authors’ and not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta or the Federal Reserve System. Any remaining errors are the authors’ responsibility.

Please address questions regarding content to Pia Orrenius, Research Department, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, 2200 N. Pearl Street, Dallas, Texas 75201, 214-922-5747,, or Madeline Zavodny, Research Department, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, 104 Marietta Street, Atlanta, Georgia 30303, 404-498-8977,