The Monetary Cost of Migration and Debt Incurred in the Journey from Mexico to the United States (2011-2019)

10 June 2021 by Víctor Manuel Isidro Luna

Border, Tijuana, CA, USA (October 9, 2019)

Photo: Barbara Zandoval

This note addresses migration and debt in the north border between Mexico and the United States. Specifically, I discuss the flow of people returned to Mexico by the US authorities, the amount that some of these people pay to coyotes (smugglers), and the number of migrants who spend some money in their transit to the United Stated and the magnitude of this amount of money (excluding the cost of the coyote). I use data from the Mexican survey on migration in the north border (EMIF Norte) in the flow of people returned by the US authorities from 2011 to 2019. Unfortunately, data for the year 2020, which would provide us with valuable information about the effects of the pandemic, is not available.

  People returned to Mexico by the US authorities

Emigration and people returned to their home country is a dynamic phenomenon. The border between the United States and Mexico is one of the biggest corridors of migration in the world. Many authors have suggested that Mexican migration to the United States has been cyclical from the end the nineteenth century to the present day, with migration numbers sometimes up and at other times down when migration is restricted. The number of people returned to Mexico by the US authorities decreased from 2011 to 2019, with a rapid decrease in the 2011-2015 period and more stagnant numbers since 2016. Some explanations for the declining flow may be the difficulties in the journey to cross to the United States and the monetary cost of undertaking such a journey; the difficulties, the journey, and the cost of the journey depend on the policies and economic and social situations of the United States and Mexico.

Figure 1. People returned to Mexico by the US authorities

  The use of coyotes and the cost

Many Mexicans hire coyotes to help them enter the United States. There is a supply and demand for the use of coyotes; however, the price of using coyotes has not been established in a competitive market. Relations of power such as organized crime in the supply of coyotes and the command of money in the demand for coyotes make this service a special case. Only people with international connections can offer to take somebody safely, but illegally, to another country, and only those with international purchasing power can afford to pay for it. Thus, it is important to study the people who pay coyotes and how much. The percent of people that that hire a coyote out of the total flow showed a decreasing trend from 2011 to 2019. In the 2011-2013 period, the probability was above 50 percent; in the 2014-2017 period, the probability declined severely, and in the last two years, using coyotes to reach the United States has increased from 29.6 to 35.2 percent. During all periods, many people have hired coyotes; the mean of the probability of using a coyote in the 2011-2019 period was 41. 2 (see Figure 2). The monetary cost of using coyotes has been increasing steadily. This amount of money is measured in current US dollars since the payment in current dollars gives us an idea of the command of effective international wealth in some specific moment (Isidro Luna 2019), since only people with this amount of money can hire a coyote [2]. From 2011 to 2019, the monetary cost of using a coyote was 4.5 times higher than amount of the initial year, reaching 4965 US dollars in 2019 (weighted average mean).

Figure 2. The Use of Coyotes (Right Axis, Percent) and the Cost (Left Axis, US Current Dollars).

  Other Monetary Expenses for Migrants and Debt

To pay a coyote to help with entry into the United States is costly, but many people nonetheless choose this option. The amount of money migrants borrows to pay a coyote is unknown. What it is known is the amount of money migrants borrow to pay other expenses in their journey from their home in Mexico to the United States. Figure 3 shows that around 40 or 50 percent of migrants borrow money; the average for the 2011-2019 period is 42.6 percent. The amount of money borrowed increased from 2011 to 2019, and today it is 1.8 times higher than in 2011 (weighted average mean). Like the cost of coyotes, other monetary expenses have been increasing sharply.

Figure 3. Borrowers (Right Axis, Percent) and the Amount of Money Borrowed in Their Transit to the United States (Left Axis, Current US Dollars)


This short note demonstrates that the cost of using coyotes and other expenses incurred by migrants during the journey to the United States increased from 2011 to 2019, and that it is now too costly to reach the United States from Mexico. Also, this article provides some evidence for the relationship of migration and debt. The average amount of money the migrants borrow to carry out their journey to the United States (excluding the cost of Coyote) is known. In-depth studies should be undertaken to determine 1) the demographic characteristics of the migrants who hire coyotes and borrow money, 2) the probability that migrants will hire coyotes and borrow money, and 3) the social and economic policies of the United States and Mexico and their relationship with migration and debt.


CONAPO, STPS, UPM, SRE, SEDESOL, CONAPRED and EL COLEF. (Several years). Encuesta sobre Migración en la Frontera Norte (EMIF norte). CONAPO, STPS, UPM, SER.

Isidro Luna, Víctor Manuel. 2019. Convergence, Capital Accumulation, and the World-System Analysis. Eseconomía XIV (51): 7-28.


[1In this note I use people; however, the flow is of events. A person can engage in several events.

[2In the computation of cost, the year of return from the US authorities is the same as the year of entry.



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