Mexico and the Mexican Community in the United States

Mexico and its Diaspora: Lessons for a New Era

by Carlos González Gutiérrez & David R. Ayón

Mexican migration to the United States peaked in 2006.   The reality and the consequences of this migratory flow, however, the largest between neighboring countries, continue to present both challenges and opportunities to the Mexican and U.S. governments, and will do so for years to come.

Among its consequences is the growth of a large Mexican diaspora in the United States and a Mexico that is widely recognized as a global leader for its diasporic policies. The fact that Mexico has been an innovator in this area was almost inevitable, given the circumstances: the dimensions of the flows, the vicinity of the destination and the extension and complexity of the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexico’s diaspora is also concentrated in its main economic and trading partner, and developed in the context of a highly asymmetrical relationship between neighbors that are of singular importance to each other.

This asymmetry has influenced the Mexican diaspora in many ways, including the levels of schooling and income of the migrant population, the kinds of jobs in which migrants have historically been employed, the highly problematic character of the migration process itself, and its accompanying low levels of migrant legalization. Together these conditions have resulted in a generally subordinated socio-economic status for Mexican migrants in the United States, which gives a special character to Mexican diplomatic and consular efforts on their behalf.

To address this challenge, Mexico has continually renewed its policies, from the creation of the Comunidades program of the 1990s to the formation of the Institute for Mexicans Abroad (IME) in the early 21st century, to the continued expansion of IME and other services in years since.   The current administration, which took office in December 2012, continues to innovate as it looks for the best approach to meet the needs of its diaspora and structure its relations with it.

This chapter does not pretend to offer a comprehensive review of Mexican policies toward the diaspora but to instead do a selective analysis of outstanding aspects of these policies. This examination can serve as a starting point for the framing of new Mexican approaches not only toward its migrant population in the United States, but also to the Mexican American population and other U.S. nationals interested in strengthening and deepening the bilateral relationship.

We begin with a brief discussion of recent Mexican policies and experiences in relation with its diaspora in the United States before turning to new approaches and considerations of how to move forward toward 2024.

Empowerment as a Goal

Among the main objectives of Mexican government policies toward its diaspora has been the empowerment of its émigré communities residing in the United States. Mexico has looked for ways to increase the visibility and influence of this population on both sides of the border, to improve its capacity to overcome obstacles, and to help advance its role as a natural bridge between both Nations in the context of their bilateral relationship. To empower its diaspora, the Mexican government has followed two main paths: integration and leadership development.

First Path: Empowering through Integration

The Mexican government has contributed to the integration and assimilation of its diaspora in the United States, primarily through the documentation services offered by its consular network. By issuing passports and “Matrículas Consulares” (secure Consular photo-identification cards) to its nationals residing abroad, Mexico provides a basic but crucial tool to its expatriates. In the case of the almost six million undocumented immigrants who have no other way to obtain an official photo-ID, Mexican passports and Consular IDs are needed to open a bank account, enter a public building or comply with their obligations during tax season.

In California, for instance, since January 1, 2015, any state resident, regardless of migratory status, may obtain a driver’s license as long as he or she is able to prove his or her identity as well as his or her residency in the State of California. Thanks to an agreement between the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Mexican Foreign Ministry in 2014, which allows the DMV to electronically verify the authenticity of Mexican-issued documents in real time, Mexican passports and Consular IDs are considered “primary documents” and therefore Mexican nationals do not need to present any other documents to prove their identity.

Beyond its documentation services, the consular network facilitates the integration of Mexican nationals through the sponsorship of educational and health programs. This effort by the source country to advance the assimilation of its expatriates into the host society may seem counter-intuitive. Studies show, however, that when migrants are kept marginalized, it becomes more difficult for them to access the resources needed to develop more sophisticated and lasting links with either their home or host societies and cultures, and thus to raise their standard of living.

Among the programs sponsored by the Mexican government, promoted and implemented by the consular network in migrant communities to facilitate their integration into U.S. society, the following examples are worth highlighting:

  1. Adult education and schooling through “Community Spaces” (Plazas Comunitarias)
  2. Healthcare windows, or Ventanillas de Salud, that operate in each of the fifty Mexican Consulates in the U.S. and provide information and otherwise help facilitate access to healthcare services available to the Mexican population
  3. The ”IME Becas program”, which provides scholarships and grants to College bound immigrant students as well as adult education centers that serve the immigrant population.
  4. Financial education programs that promote access to the banking system, bank credits and transnational loans
  5. Orientation workshops for undocumented youths who arrived to the United States as children and thus can obtain a work permit under the Obama Administration’s “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (DACA) program.

These programs have been successful because they have been implemented with the backing of the consular network and have been bonding with the population for over 20 years. Through a process of trial and error, initiatives like the Plazas Comunitarias network (with over 400 throughout the country) or the 50 Ventanillas de Salud have consistently improved over time.

This array of educational and health programs is promoted by a professional and specialized bureaucracy assigned to Mexican Consulates, formed primarily by Foreign Service Officers from the Mexican Foreign Ministry. Their efforts and initiatives go well beyond what the Vienna Convention for Consular Relations (signed in the early 1960s) established as typical responsibilities of consular representation.

Even though these are mostly unilateral actions undertaken by Mexico without previous agreement with the U.S. government, the success of these initiatives has been possible due to a network of local contacts and partners that Mexican consular offices have built over the years.

For example, to initiate a scholarship program it is necessary to find local partners to raise funds that complement resources contributed by the Mexican government. To open a Plaza Comunitaria that can take advantage of the educational materials provided by Mexico’s National Institute for Adult Education (INEA), it is necessary to find a partner willing to lend classrooms and computers. Equally, for a Health Window to be able to refer an undocumented patient to a community clinic for medical treatment, it is necessary to develop operational protocols with clinic personnel.

The collaboration of local partners is thus essential for the successful implementation of Mexico’s programs for its citizens living in the United States. As a result, Mexico has systematically cultivated these relationships through formal institutional channels since the 1990s, following the creation of the first Program for Mexican Communities Abroad (Programa para las Comunidades Mexicanas en el Exterior), the predecessor to the IME.

What is needed for these programs to continue to grow, qualitatively and quantitatively?

If the issuing of identification documents is the first step to help integrate its expats into their host society, Mexico needs to continuously lobby for the widespread acceptance of its Consular ID among federal, state and local authorities throughout the country.

The acceptance of foreign-issued IDs was heavily restricted after the 9/11 attacks. In response, the Mexican Foreign Ministry has improved the quality of its passports and Consular IDs, which now contain full biometric information and ample security features to prevent forgery. At the same time, it has worked closely with Mexico’s state governments to facilitate the remote procurement of birth certificates for people who cannot return to their home state to obtain them.

But there are still many U.S. states where the pragmatic attitude found in private sector institutions such as banks, which accept the Consular IDs as a way to unleash economic transactions that would not otherwise occur, has no counterpart in the governmental or political arenas, not even by local law enforcement authorities that should be interested in the accurate identification of law abiding residents, regardless of migratory status.

Paradoxically, a measure originally designed to strengthen the sense of belonging of Mexican emigrants to their homeland is about to make life easier for those who still face ID challenges in the United States. In 2006 Mexicans living abroad were allowed to vote for the first time in the presidential election in Mexico. The 2018 electoral cycle will be the first for which expats will be allowed to obtain their respective electoral card in the closest Mexican consulate in the United States, without having to travel to Mexico to apply for one (an insuperable obstacle for half of the eligible population, because of its irregular migratory status). It is unclear to what extent this change will increase the participation from abroad in Mexico’s elections. What is certain, however, is that hundreds of thousands of Mexicans will visit their closest Consulate in the U.S. to obtain the most popular and secure official ID in their country of origin, at no cost to them.

In the future, Mexico must also broaden its program offerings, especially in education. So far, educational offerings have been limited to exporting “economies of scale.” Through the internet, Mexican communities abroad can receive the same adult education programs and INEA courses offered in Mexico, as well as the same free textbooks for children. This help is valuable indeed, but it has not been specifically designed to meet the particular needs of migrant communities.

To harness the full potential of technology through distance education courses, Mexico needs to design education products that serve the specific needs of its students attending American schools. At the high school level, this implies developing an equivalency scheme to reconcile Mexican and U.S. curricula, mainly in science and mathematics. Pilot programs in Texas (Proyecto LUCHA) and in California (Proyecto SOL) have shown that this is not only possible but contributes to improving the school performance level of migrant students. After twenty years of promoting adult education, it is crucial to take the next step and go beyond after-hours courses and fully address the classroom needs of this specific student body.

The success of these efforts, especially the reconciling of education programs in each country, also depends on the participation of Mexican specialists, and this requires the investment of time and resources from beyond the Mexican Foreign Ministry and to increase the priority given to these initiatives.

Another way to enhance Mexican cooperation, both quantitative and qualitative, in the development of program offerings is by strengthening the negotiation capacities of the Mexican consuls relative to the local institutions with whom project implementation is arranged.   Quite simply, this means endowing them with greater resources. Currently, the IME’s most successful projects are its health and scholarship programs: the Ventanillas de Salud and the IME Becas. After years of trial and error, each program has grown exponentially because the Mexican government has funded them with money and other resources that have been distributed among the 50 consulates in the United States (mostly from the Health Ministry’s budget in the first case and the Foreign Ministry’s in the second).

The model has worked well because each consulate has the flexibility to use these funds to induce matching resources from local partners, who usually contribute much more than the seed capital provided by the Mexican government for these projects. As previously mentioned, the social capital that has been built over time with local leaders is crucial for them to be willing to sponsor and fund these projects as their own.

Beyond these programs to support migrant integration with their local communities, the government of Mexico has also eliminated specific barriers to its integration objective. This includes the 1997 constitutional reform that established the “non-forfeiture of nationality,” which allowed Mexicans living abroad to obtain foreign citizenship without losing their status as Mexican nationals.   Under the dual nationality regime established by the Mexican Congress in the late 1990s, migrants who obtained legal status in the United States under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) could more readily obtain American citizenship and thus voting rights in the U.S.

Second Path: Empowerment by Developing Skills & Capacities in Community Leaders

Integration initiatives such as these do not operate in isolation, however. They are closely linked to efforts to promote and strengthen the skills and capacities of independent community leaders. So parallel to initiatives to facilitate diasporic integration, the Mexican government has also taken actions to complement the autonomous community organizing efforts of Mexican citizens in the United States. In this case, empowerment is achieved by strengthening community organizations and migrant leaders through programs that aim to build leadership capacity and organizing skills.

Programs within this initiative include the Ohtli award, which recognizes Mexicans living abroad for their contributions to the migrant community, the Jornadas Informativas program in which delegations of community leaders visit Mexico, the activities of local U.S. offices of Mexican state governments that attend to the needs of their migrants, the coaching of hometown association leaders in how to negotiate with local authorities over 3X1 program funds, and the linking of local leaders that are geographically dispersed.   One project deserves special attention, however: the Advisory Board of the Institute of Mexicans Abroad, or CCIME (the Consejo Consultivo del Instituto de los Mexicanos en el Exterior).

The CCIME, or Consejo, was formed in 2002 to create an institutional channel through which migrant community leaders might have input into and influence the Mexican public policy formulation process with regards to the migrant community.

The emblematic feature of the Consejo has been its autonomy. From its inception through 2014, its members were elected by community members, completely independent of the Mexican government and its network of consulates. From this elected independence emerged the legitimacy of the Consejo as a representative of the migrant community and an intermediary between it and the Mexican government.

From the perspective of the IME and the Foreign Ministry, the CCIME functioned relatively well in three main ways. First, the CCIME has been a pluralistic platform where community leaders and activists from all currents have had a voice. When this body was formed, it was extremely important to create a space where even the most polemical migrant leaders could speak out publicly and openly.   The CCIME served this role, working as a forum in which even the most controversial voices were able to express themselves.

Second, it also served as a useful space for training independent leaders. In the CCIME, the Consejeros learned firsthand about programs promoted by the consulates such as education, health, consular protection and community organization programs. And in the best case, leaders personally adopted these initiatives and invested their own time, resources and skills to help implement them. Lastly, the CCIME has been instrumental as a space in which leaders from all over the country have come together to form coalitions and expand their networks, to build a network of networks.

Even as the CCIME accomplished many of its most important objectives, it is also true that after more than a decade of operating under the same scheme, the limitations of its original design became quite clear. The CCIME aimed to represent Mexican communities in the United States in a single assembly composed of over a hundred members, making it not very practical and difficult to operate. Additionally, Consejeros were elected by the communities that they intended to represent, which discouraged valuable leaders who prefer not to expose themselves to the wear and tear of the local election process.

The fact that the Consejeros had to be independently elected by the community led to two unintentional and damaging consequences for the IME as a convening institution. On one hand, the predominance of first generation migrant leaders (as opposed to Mexican-Americans of second, third or subsequent generations) increased over time. On the other, in some consular jurisdictions, elections were controlled by local power groups that interfered in the election processes to prevent outsiders from being elected.

The structure and functioning of the CCIME was reviewed and reorganized in 2014 by the Foreign Ministry. No call for applications to compete in open elections was issued. Instead, IME issued a call for the presentation of project proposals by community leaders in each consular jurisdiction. IME, as the convening institution, in coordination with the consular network, reserved for itself the right to select those projects that interest it the most (in the area of education, health, community organization, cultural promotion, etc.). IME plans to organize several single-issue conferences, both in Mexico and the United States, to continue promoting ties among independent community leaders engaged in similar projects.

At this writing, the new policy had just been implemented for the first time, too recently to attempt any evaluation in this chapter. But the historical experience described above lends itself to our own consideration of what the future might hold.

Towards the Future

In reviewing the legacy built by the IME and its predecessor (the Comunidades program) over nearly a quarter century, probably the most valuable asset has been the construction of solid relationships and links with a wide range of community leaders. These thousands of community leaders have invested, in varying degrees, their time, resources and skills in participating in the network of networks that the IME and its Consejo Consultivo (CCIME) developed, and have become a natural bridge for strengthening ties between Mexico and the United States.

Consolidating the Mexican government’s relationship with Mexican American leaders, as a bridge for bilateral understanding and collaboration, has been Mexico’s most important strategic goal. Now the question is how to transform this social and political capital, woven through the relationships with thousands of Mexican-origin leaders, into an effective and lasting bridge that brings the two countries closer together.

The answer begins with abandoning the claim to universality that inspired the IME advisory council. Trying to include representatives of the entire diaspora under one roof proved to be a complicated and ultimately not very practical goal. It would be more productive to simultaneously take advantage of other public platforms and spaces that give leaders of Mexican descent in the United States the opportunity to focus at least part of their political agenda on Mexico, and especially on U.S. relations with its southern neighbor.

In other words, from the Mexican government’s perspective, it might be more effective to approach this large challenge in a decentralized and piecemeal fashion. This implies focusing energy on multiple spaces for dialogue with Mexican Americans leaders that are more limited – bounded by thematic or regional or other criteria – but that share a common premise: a willingness to focus on Mexico and its relationship with the United States. These openings for dialogue are increasingly valuable for Mexico because they make it possible to publicly air subjects that the Mexican government cannot propose on its own, given that its opinion would represent an intervention by a foreign actor. However, independent citizens interested in creating purposeful synergies with the Mexican government can pose these topics of long-term and mutual interest.

Contrary to what is often thought in Mexico, such spaces are still scarce in the United States. With the exception of the first generation migrant leaders who are linked to their communities of origin through hometown associations, or business leaders who do civic work promoting economic exchange through binational chambers of commerce, there actually are just a few opinion leaders or community leaders in the United States interested in investing time and resources in an agenda focused on strengthening bilateral relations. Most Latino leaders devote their energies to promoting a domestic agenda, defined in part by the need to defend the rights of a “protected minority,” an agenda that ignores differences in terms of national origin in favor of a pan-ethnic unity which incorporates the descendants of all Latin American immigrants under a single “Latino” or “Hispanic” identity.

The governments of Mexico and the United States can create different kinds of platforms to facilitate the emergence of the greatest number of spaces for dialogue that favor involving the diaspora in bilateral relations. In the following section, we describe two examples of this approach: one created regionally with the support of the Government of Mexico and another developed with the encouragement of the U.S. government.

Cien Amigos: Working for California and Mexico

At the beginning of 2010, in response to an invitation by the Consulate General of Mexico in Sacramento, a group of prominent Latino community leaders from Northern California joined forces to sponsor celebrations of the Bicentennial of Mexico’s Independence and the Centennial of the Mexican Revolution promoted by the consular office.

Soon after, the group decided to institutionalize this organizational endeavor and created the civic association “Cien Amigos: Working for California & Mexico.” At that time, the announcement of the acquisition of a new building for the Consulate was an important catalyst for the organization’s initial undertakings. In April 2011, the opening ceremony for the new building and the curating of the permanent photographic collection for the Mexican consulate were the first two projects sponsored by Cien Amigos.

Today, Cien Amigos is an organization that is joined by invitation. Most of the members are of Mexican or Latino origin, even though the place of origin is not a requirement for membership. Members constitute a relatively representative sample of independent community leaders, including businessmen, lawyers, academics, lobbyists, representatives of civil organizations, professionals and local officials. Cien Amigos is a registered non-profit advocacy organization (501-C4) whose operational resources come from annual membership fees.

The constant dialogue and collaboration between the Consulate and Cien Amigos are possible because the independence of the members of this organization is not questioned. Given the diverse character and background of its members, success in their individual careers, as well as several of its members’ long experience in public affairs, it is clear that whoever is part of Cien Amigos does not seek any personal gain. Participants value the leadership network that Cien Amigos offers, they believe in the importance of raising awareness about the relevance of Mexico to California, or they want to help the Consulate to better serve the community. Most members of Cien Amigos are aware of the fact that by mobilizing around California-Mexico relations, it is possible not only to promote social justice and the economic welfare of migrant communities, but also to gain political capital for the Mexican American community in California.

In its first 5 years of existence, Cien Amigos has been able to institutionalize the annual celebration of the “California-Mexico Advocacy Day” in California’s Capitol; create the “Cien Amigos-IME Scholarship Fund” to help immigrant students attend college, and lobby successfully in favor of different public policies that benefit both Mexico and California, such as the lifting of the ban that did not allowed any student or faculty exchange by teachers and students from the California State University system and Mexico.

Collaboration between the Consulate and Cien Amigos occurs within a broad area in which three axes converge: mutual interest, respect for the independence of the counterpart, and the recognition that the agenda for collaboration is limited to nonpartisan long-term issues, where the shared interest between Mexico and California pass through the integration of migrants and the strengthening of economic relations between the two countries.

The MALI Experiment

The unexpected arrival of Hillary Clinton to head of the State Department in January 2009 opened the door to a new era for Latino – and especially Mexican American – participation in the foreign policy of the United States. In 2010, Clinton’s main Latino advisor, José H. Villarreal (a lawyer from San Antonio), began a series of consultations with Mexican American leaders to gauge their interest and willingness to engage Mexico in an organized manner. The setting at the time was marked on one side by the conflict with the drug cartels in Mexico, and on the other by budget cuts in Washington, which severely limited the resources available to American diplomacy.

The outcome of these consultations was the creation of the Mexican American Leadership Initiative (MALI), launched as part of a binational philanthropic organization, the U.S.-Mexico Foundation (USMF), and encouraged by the support of Secretary Clinton and the State Department. With the participation of Villarreal and the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Henry Cisneros, the MALI initiative was able to bring together hundreds of Mexican-American leaders from throughout the United States to focus mainly on non-governmental relations with Mexico and to support community development projects in that country.

The MALI proposal was a question and experiment: Given the institutionalization of a national-level, pan-ethnic Latino political project and its commitment to a purely domestic agenda, would it be possible and desirable to mobilize Mexican American leaders in relation to Mexico and a binational agenda? Since the late nineteenth century, Mexican Americans who lived mainly in the region that had previously been part of Mexico had been organized primarily for the purpose of mutual aid and claiming of their rights as American citizens.

Largely to distinguish themselves from new migrants coming from Mexico, many of the more established Mexican Americans preferred to be identified as “Hispanic,” and over multiple generations formed “Hispanic” organizations such as the Hispanic Alliance (La Alianza Hispanoamericana), the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Congreso de Pueblos de Habla Española (Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples), the Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations (PASSO), the Southwest Council of La Raza (later the National Council of La Raza – NCLR), the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). The practice of not explicitly identifying these organizations with Mexico, but instead as generically Hispanic or Latino, was so ingrained that many later participants were unaware of the original rationale – that of not being identified as foreigners.

Even if this concern had largely passed into history, the visible support of Secretary Clinton granted MALI a valuable dose of legitimacy, at least among Mexican American leaders affiliated with the Democratic Party. MALI was able not only to involve ambassadors from both countries on various occasions, but U.S. Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela and Secretary Clinton herself. It also obtained funding from non-governmental organizations for a series of delegations of Mexican American leaders to visit Mexico, particularly from the cities of San Antonio and Los Angeles, who sponsored and supported community projects in the states of Chiapas and Yucatan.

Another aspect of “MALI as an experiment” has been its relationships with established Latino organizations – would they accept this new entity, with its binational approach, as a valuable addition to the landscape of Latino organizations? It turned out that the MALI approach and the participation of prominent Latino leaders among its members, together with the support of Clinton and a range of officials from the State Department, allowed MALI to pass this test with flying colors.


For nearly a century, the governments of Mexico and the United States have repeatedly tried to draw nearer to one another and significantly expand or deepen relations and collaboration on a wide range of issues including security, trade, transportation, migration, education, etc. In almost every case, one government, the other, or both, have been constrained by doubts about domestic public opinion and its willingness to accept such a step, and frequently both governments have had to deal with determined resistance from their critics and political opposition. The best-known cases were the national debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the frustrated negotiations for a bilateral migration agreement in 2001.

Evidently, among the elements that the bilateral relationship lacks are strong foundations of social support in each country for closer relations and greater integration. The fact that millions of Mexicans have migrated to the United States, and that today the population of Mexican origin in this country exceeds 30 million and continues to grow at a rapid pace, looms astride the relationship as a natural bridge for understanding and a potential base of support for enhanced bilateral collaboration. Innovative initiatives like Cien Amigos and MALI are proving the logic of continuing to work this fertile ground as we look toward 2024 and ways to further improve bilateral relations.


The U.S.-Mexico Network’s Imagining 2024 project is designed to provide readers a quick overview of key issues in US-Mexico relations – the background of the issue, its current state, where we ought to be by 2024, and how to get there.


Each short essay is coupled with suggested background readings for those interested in a more detailed understanding of the issue at hand.  And as an electronic publication, both the essays and their associated resource pages are updated as needed to keep the information and analysis fresh.

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