Return Migrants Can Make a Big Difference - Pacific Standard

Return Migrants Can Make a Big Difference

Researchers have found that return migrants to the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, have a positive effect on nearly every aspect of life.
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Guanajuato, Mexico. (Photo: Bud Ellison/Flickr)

Guanajuato, Mexico. (Photo: Bud Ellison/Flickr)

A new study published in the Social Science Journal has revealed that when Mexican immigrants return to their home communities from the United States, they have a positive effect on all indicators of human development, including health care, education, and income.

Researchers Benjamin James Waddell and Matías Fontenla, from Adams State University and the University of New Mexico, respectively, spent 10 years studying datasets from 46 municipalities in Guanajuato, which, in recent years, has had more return migrants than any other state. They found that when former migrants come back to their hometowns, "fewer infants die before the age of 5, more children attend school, literacy rates improve, per capita income rises, and citizens engage in electoral politics in greater numbers," the researchers write. Interestingly, their study also revealed that when migrants send money home from the U.S. in their absence—known as remittances—it negatively affects development outcomes and electoral participation. This, despite the fact that $583 billion worth of remittances were sent across the globe in 2014.

"This kind of flies in the face of the notion that any type of transferred capital is good," Waddell tells me, since remittances are simply cash transfers where the receiving party has more or less complete authority over how the money is spent. "When return migrants are present, they’re much better at directing those remittances toward the types of things that might lead to productive outcomes."

The types of people who are generally immigrating to the U.S. are between the ages of 18-40, and these are the people who would be driving most cultural and economic production back home.

Now, while Waddell and Fontenla admit that they weren’t able to put their finger on the precise mechanisms at play, they think they have a good idea as to why so much good follows these return migrants home: The types of people who are generally immigrating to the U.S. are between the ages of 18-40, and these are the people who would be driving most cultural and economic production back home. When they leave for the U.S., what’s left in their absence is a sort of cultural vacuum. But when they return, they bring not only the energy and ambition that was gone in their absence, but also new perspectives, languages, and skill sets; skills like construction and urban planning—instrumental for the success of developing Mexican communities.

On top of their monetary contribution—say, increased engagement with Mexican banking systems—the researchers found that these Guanajuato migrants brought with them a heightened focus on their local culture as well. After moving to the U.S., many set up clubs designed to maintain their culture within the migrant community. When they return to Guanajuato, this same enthusiasm remains and they inject renewed enthusiasm back into their local culture, according to Waddell.

Looking forward, Waddell says Mexican policymakers must think about how they can replicate the experience of migrants abroad in their own communities.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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