Immigration & Mexico

So, are they going to deport you?

Immediately, images of sneaking across the Sonoran desert into Arizona creep into my mind. Suddenly, my tongue feels dry as I take note my thirst. I can only imagine what this journey is like, and I thank my lucky stars that this will not be my fate.

To most US Americans, the word “immigration” is closely coupled with the word “Mexico.” I am no different; how quickly my mind conjured images of dangerous, illegal crossings when I paired those words.

The only difference: for me, the equation is flipped. It is me crossing the border. Yesterday I was the one worrying about visas and border crossings. Actually, I was stressed almost to tears. Would my papers come through in time?


Back in June, my mom invited me to return home for a family vacation. Not one to turn down the chance to visit my amazing family, I happily accepted. We put our heads together to strategize for the best dates.

I double-checked the expiration date of my work visa that allows me legal permission to live and work in Mexico. Since it was slated to expire in August, it would be going through the renewal process somewhere between mid-August and mid-September. To be safe, we booked tickets for mid-October.

In August, I sent my visa off to the authorities in Mexico City, along with a stack of papers that could crush a scorpion, flat. I would be in good shape come October. Or so I thought…


This very visa renewal process is undergone each year by thousands of foreigners who call Mexico home. If you want to get specific, there were 301,795 work visas issued in 2011. Given my knowledge of the renewal process, this number conjures images of room after room filled with tall stacks of stamped, signed, and sealed paperwork.

But this number does not represent the entire population of foreigners living in Mexico by a long shot. In 2010, we totaled just shy of 1 million, 77 percent of whom are of American citizenship. This is more that the current population of Austen, Texas!

The New York Times' infographic about migration to Mexico

The New York Times’ infographic about migration to Mexico. Click to enlarge.

In total, foreigners total approximately 0.8 percent of Mexico’s population.  OK, I admit, that sounds like small peanuts, especially when you compare it to the USA’s immigrant population, which sits somewhere near 12.5 percent.*

The fact that I make up part of a 0.8 percent minority in Mexico is patently obvious. Especially since most of these million foreigners live in the biggest cities like Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta, and Mexico, and in foreign enclaves like San Miguel de Allende. I live far from these places in a city whose name does not sound even vaguely familiar with just about anyone in the United States. My city is not mentioned in travel guidebooks, and is bereft of just about any industry that could attract foreign business. Here, I am an anomaly. I am stared at, asked where I come from, and honked at every single day. But this is typical of the Peace Corps experience.


If the question is changed from “how many” to “what is the growth rate” of foreigners moving to Mexico, the response gets interesting. Mexico’s population of foreigners has almost doubled in ten years. In fact, more Americans have been added to the population of Mexico over the past few years than Mexicans have been added to the population of the United States!**

In 2011, Jason Jones of The Daily Show did a nice comedy piece about the slow-down in Mexican immigration to the United States, and the high quality of life found in Mexico: check it out and prepare to laugh.

Should our image of immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border shift to reflect our current times?


Getting back to my story: it is now October. Two months after turning it in for renewal, my visa is still sitting pendiente on someone’s desk or in some filing cabinet in Mexico City. My plane is scheduled to leave tomorrow, and yesterday I was near tears without permission to leave. The legendary Mexican bureaucracy  was standing directly in my way.

As soon as I realized that there was no way that my papers would come through in time, I applied for permission to leave and return while my visa was still pendiente. It was another bureaucratic hurdle to hop.

So as not to bore you with the details, I have summarized my experience of the process in a list of numbers below:

Trips to the Immigration Office:

  • Prior trips to file for a visa renewal: 3
  • Trips for this process: 2
  • Minimum number of future trips: 3

For this process, I had to run around town a lot:

  • Trips in public transit: 8
  • Trips to the bank: 2
  • Trips to a copy shop: 2

There were many pages printed, clerical errors that got in the way, and confidentiality that was not as confidential as I hoped:

  • Pages printed: 20 that I can remember
  • Critical typos on official paperwork: 1
  • Envelopes containing confidential information that arrived already opened: 1
  • Paperwork of other immigrants that I could read while at the office: 3 other individuals

Time was a big stressor throughout the process:

  • Entire work days set aside for this process: 2
  • Days before my trip that my permission was approved: 2

But hey, I was approved in typical Mexican style: last minute and totally worth it!

The official stamps and signatures on the "correct" papers were not easy to come by, but they sure are worth the effort

The official stamps and signatures on the “correct” papers were not easy to come by, but they sure are worth the effort


Even given the bureaucracy, Mexico is such an amazing place to live. It is so full of opportunity and challenge. This is why so many foreigners are starting to change their latitude and settle down south.

The New York Times recently profiled this change, attributing the increase in immigration to the growing competitiveness of manufacturing  and general improvement in economics, the high quality of life, a new welcoming attitude toward foreigners in Mexico, the creative atmosphere, and the sense that anything is possible here.

Many immigrants say Mexico is attractive because it feels disorderly, like a work in progress, with the blueprints of success, hierarchy and legality still being drawn. “Not everyone follows the rules here, so if you really want to make something happen you can make it happen. No one is going to fault you for not following all the rules.”
-New York Times


While the whole process was trying, and while I did my fair share of complaining throughout, I had to take a step back for a moment and think about the bigger picture.

When my friend teasingly asked me if I would be deported, I joked back. It is funny to reverse the stereotypes and imagine US Americans being deported.

I eventually stopped complaining when I realized that I was comparing my experience with the extremely arduous process that so many Mexicans have gone through while becoming and/or remaining immigrants, or with the journey of so many other immigrants in the world, past and present. It makes my trip down bureaucratic lane seem as complicated as peeling a banana. First world problems in the developing world always require a perspective check.


Making me smile

  • The promise of mom-hugs and grandma conversations, Mediterranean food, crisp fall mornings with a cuppa tea in-hand, sticking my toes in the ocean, and all sorts of other home-treats.
  • My project funding from USAID somehow just came through, despite the current government shutdown. And now, to work with me!
  • I convinced my roommate to go against the norm and buy a back-up bottle of gas; that way when one bottle is empty, we can switch to using the back-up for cooking and heating water while we wait for the gas company to deliver the next bottle: theoretically this means that I will no longer go without hot water and the stove will always work. The guys at the gas company looked at me like I was capital-C Crazy when I asked to purchase an extra bottle, but they happily took the money and hauled the extremely heavy bottle up three flights of stairs to our roof. Hot water abounds, what a luxury
  • Finally feeling able to express a wide range of my opinions about racism, socio-linguistic change, the economy, and US politics over a coffee and pastries, and with some level of nuance and sophistication in my second language…still a long way off from being able to speak completely freely, but I sure have come a long way in thirteen months!


** New York Times: For migrants new land of opportunity is Mexico


4 responses to “Immigration & Mexico

  1. Whew! Glad everything worked out! Them documents better be good, cuz we are waiting for you!!!
    I have my shopping list in hand — TJ’s and Whole Foods – here we come. See you tomorrow eve.
    Travel safely.
    Auntie K

  2. I’m glad your visa woes ended on a positive note, and once again I enjoyed reading your well-versed views on Mexico. Here’s to a lovely reunion with your family, the new grant, and the extra gas bottle! 🙂

    • Right? Life is good! Who could complain about life with a full bottle of gas, grant $, AND legal border crossings.
      Just read your latest post…I am guessing you won’t like the name of my newest club…Club Gecko! Not even kidding.Our tag line: Escaladoras y excusionistas, which means women rock climbers and adventurers, so the gecko fits.

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