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GIS Tracks Earnings Sent Home by Mexican Migrants

A Special Type of Remittance Payment

For local governments, understanding the geographic distribution of remittance flows, particularly social remittances or collective remittances, is important. Social remittances are a special category of payments intended for development purposes that don't necessarily have the same spatial distribution as traditional family remittances. Consequently, they must be analyzed separately.

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The researchers studied one state, Zacatecas, and compared the distribution of social and family remittances in various municipalities.

For many years, Mexican migrants in the United States have organized clubs and associations that carry out activities for the advancement of their members in the United States. The efforts of these clubs or hometown associations (HTAs) have intensified across the United States and support activities that defend and support members in labor and civil matters and sponsor social and religious functions. More recently, these groups have begun providing development assistance to their home communities. HTAs support community projects such as street work, water provision, parks, bridges, ambulance services, libraries, sports facilities, and the restoration and building of churches. These activities have drawn the attention of researchers and multilateral organizations as well as Mexican government authorities. The Mexican government has used its consulates in the United States as a vehicle to recognize HTAs as legal entities and work with them to channel funds to poor Mexican communities.

Although HTAs have grown, 70 percent of all associations remain affiliated with just four states-Guerrero, Guanajuato, Jalisco, and Zacatecas. Consequently, funds for social investment tend to concentrate in these areas. While data is scarce, it is believed that half of all social remittance flows are concentrated in approximately 460 municipalities. These mostly rural communities represent 16 percent of the Mexican population.

In the last five years, there has been a substantial increase in social remittances and in the number of small businesses in Mexican communities financed by migrants in the United States. Multilateral organizations are interested in channeling HTA funds for the creation of small businesses, but the total amount of collective remittances has not been systematically documented. Although these payments are currently estimated at between 1 and 2 percent of total family remittances, their potential size is much larger given the growth of HTAs and the growing Latino population in the United States. With the investment of 5 to 6 percent of family remittances, and perhaps three times that amount from social remittances, remittances represent significant amounts of money dedicated to local development.

Study Results

The One Big Tent study applied simple GIS techniques such as straightforward choropleth mapping. Nevertheless, these maps were powerful tools in identifying areas that need further investigation. The greatest challenge remains in acquiring remittance data at a level finer than municipalities.

The researchers observed the general geographic distribution of remittance flows was as expected. States that traditionally send more migrants to the United States received the greatest volume of remittances. These states were Jalisco; Michoacán; Guanajuato; Baja California; Guerrero; and to a slightly lesser extent, Zacatecas, one of the oldest migrant sending states.

Surprisingly, despite the fact that all border states have "commuter workers" who work on the United States side but live on the Mexican side, only one border state has high remittances. This more dynamic pattern along the Tijuana–San Diego border may attest to a more vigorous economy in this region.

Over the past decade, the geography of remittance payments has shifted dramatically at the state level. This pattern has emerged so recently that a consensus has not been reached as to its cause. One argument suggests that people are migrating from new areas because of the crisis in Mexican agriculture and the failure of the state to develop sensible policies for medium- and small-scale farmers. In Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Yucatan, for example, farm laborers previously worked for short periods on coffee, sugar, or sisal plantations; on farms in other Mexican regions; or in the United States. Younger laborers may now see no future in agriculture so they are migrating to export processing zones (Maquiladoras) in Mexico to become factory workers or leaving permanently for the United States. Today, Oaxacans are agricultural workers in California or industrial workers in New York state.

Another argument suggests that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), rather than deterring migration to the United States, has increased it and changed its geography. For example, producers of corn, a Mexican staple, cannot compete with American farmers. American grain imports are creating a large pool of unemployed farm workers who may become migrants. In Zárate–Hoyos' opinion, the failure of Mexico to produce enough jobs has been especially evident in the poorest regions of the country, especially the southeast, which sends increasing numbers of migrants to the United States.

Variations at the Municipality Level

Mapping remittances for municipalities revealed a very unequal distribution of remittances not only at the state level but also within states. One municipality in the state of Michoacán, Acapulco de Juarez, has the highest volume of remittances in the country. For One Big Tent, this would be the logical place to open the first transfer office. Other target municipalities included León in Guanajuato, Buenavista in Michoacán, Zapopan and Tuxpan in Jalisco, and Juarez and Chihuahua in the state of Chihuahua.

However, it is both noteworthy and counterintuitive that municipalities such as Acapulco, with its heavy dependence on tourism, and Leon, with its dynamic regional economy, still send migrants to the United States and receive substantial remittances. This indicates that local economic strategies are insufficient to keep people from migrating north.

Comparing Family and Social Remittances

As yet, no published studies look at the distribution of social remittances. Zárate-Hoyos and Anderson took a closer look at one state, Zacatecas, to compare the distribution of social and family remittances and found that the municipalities of Jalpa, Fresnillo, Sain Alto, General Panfilo Natera, and Villanueva, in descending order, received the highest level of family remittances. On the other hand, Guadalupe, Villanueva, Nochistlan de Mejia, Jerez, and General Panfilo Natera, in descending order, received the most social remittances. Only General Panfilo Natera received high levels of both types of remittances. This suggests that social remittances reflect the degree of organization and activism among the different HTAs, while family remittances are determined by family needs.

This preliminary analysis indicates that state governments need to invest in collecting data. A more in-depth analysis of the pattern of social remittances distribution earmarked for local economic development is needed rather than relying on the available family remittances data when determining where to distribute state and municipality resources. Institutions, such as One Big Tent, also need this information when deciding where to donate funds for development.

Maximizing Remittance Benefits

Beyond the practical interests of money transfer institutions, the researchers concluded that more resources need to be devoted to collecting data on social and collective remittances, quantifying the precise amounts of remittances flowing to Mexico, and focusing on possible state and local multiplier effects. In particular, states, such as Oaxaca and Veracruz, that have only recently begun sending substantial numbers of migrants should be more closely examined. These tasks are in the realm of Mexican federal and state governments.

The federal government has been mapping 90 microregions that are at the bottom of the income distribution. These microregions are characterized by extensive poverty and few social services. For some municipalities, remittances make up between 50 and 60 percent of total income. Although only 5 to 6 percent of family remittances, and perhaps a third more of social remittances, are being invested in development, these funds are being spent on education and health. The next step, for which GIS technology is essential, is the integration of data on migration with data on poverty to determine how remittances might alleviate poverty in these areas.

Once the spatial distribution of migrants and remittance flows has been demonstrated, policy makers should focus on channeling remittances to the most vulnerable groups, because migration continues to be an important part of an antipoverty policy. This effort should include seeking partnerships with nongovernmental organizations that can target communities with large migration and remittance flows and high levels of poverty and exclusion. For more information, contact Scott Anderson at

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