Mexodus – Unrelenting violence and lawlessness forces thousands of middle-class Mexicans to relocate seeking safety in the U.S. and in more peaceful regions in México


(Raymundo Aguirre/

El Paso and Ciudad Juárez blend as just one city. (Raymundo Aguirre/

EL PASO – Once a vibrant border city of almost two million persons, Ciudad Juárez has become a shadow of its former self.

The Mexican city was known for its flourishing maquiladora industry and thousands of mom-and-pop storefront shops, world-class restaurants and entertainment venues.

In the last five years, more than 7,000 murders have occurred because of the violence generated by the Mexican government’s failed war against organized crime and drug cartels.

The resulting battle between the government and the cartels and between drug cartels has provoked a spike of assassinations, extortions, kidnappings and other crimes that has forced an estimated 125,000 persons to flee to other regions of México and across the Rio Grande to El Paso and to other parts of the U.S. and, leaving behind shuttered businesses, empty houses and, in many cases, their family ties.

Although the exodus to the U.S., which includes Mexicans with existing U.S. citizenship or permanent and temporary residency visas, has been difficult to quantify, a review of existing U.S. and Mexican government research data has shown that the impact has been significant.

Some findings from Borderzine’s research on this project:

  • In the last five years, some 10,000 small businesses in Cd. Juárez closed with some relocating to El Paso and other parts of the U.S.
  • One in four dwellings in Cd. Juárez are currently vacant.
  • Estimates of the relocation of Mexican residents from Cd. Juárez to neighboring El Paso and other parts of the U.S. range from 30,000 to 125,000 persons.  Overall, Cd. Juárez has lost 230,000 mainly middle-class residents since 2006 as a result of various factors including the economic downturn of the last few years and the exodus of residents fleeing violence. However, the population of the city has continued to grow, since it continually draws immigrants from the entire country. The persons are looking to improve their lives by working in the maquilas or by crossing the border into the U.S. illegally. The Instituto Nacional de Geografía, Estadística e Informática (INEGI) reports that the population of Cd. Juárez rose from 1,218,817 in 2000 to 1,332,131 in 2010.
  • Public and private schools in the city of El Paso and outlying areas show enrollment growth due to the exodus and military expansion at Fort Bliss, with some individual schools reporting significant increases in classes for students with limited English ability.
  • In the five-year period between 2001 and 2005, the U.S. granted 7,603 business and investor visas to Mexicans. In the following five years, after President Calderon declared war on the drug cartels, the number soared by 300 percent to 31,068.

The visible expansion and opening of businesses coming to El Paso from Juárez, along with the media coverage of the violence in México, suggests that there is a massive flow of Mexicans seeking refuge in the United States and particularly in El Paso. However, city officials, political science professors, educators and experts in both sides of the border differ on the size of the exodus and how it has impacted the city.

(Brandon Carrillo/

(Brandon Carrillo/

A study from the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez suggests that more than 230,000 persons have left Juárez in the past three years. Of those, around 124,000 persons would have sought refuge in El Paso, a number that does not seem credible to some.

“Nobody has any real data to back up a figure,” said El Paso Mayor John Cook. “Some people are moving over. Some others have dual citizenship and have been able to live in the U.S.  People have work visas … some of them are actually business owners. So I have to look at some other things too like new water meters that have been installed, new electric meters, and we haven’t really seen that, so I think this number is out of proportion. If is over 10,000, we will be very surprised.”

The Cd. Juárez-El Paso border is considered one of the busiest borders in the world, with an estimated 250,000 daily crossings through its four international bridges. People cross from México everyday to work, to attend school, to shop, to visit relatives or to have fun. Many of them have dual citizenship or are U.S. citizens, who have made their life in both countries. Now, because of the violence, they have chosen to move to El Paso.

Antonio Payan, a political science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), argued that nobody really knows how many individuals made the transition to El Paso because most of them are most likely U.S. citizens. This has made it difficult to measure the size of the exodus because it has been impossible to track the movement of U.S. citizens from Juárez to El Paso.

“I bet you that 80 percent to 90 percent of the people that moved to El Paso in the last four and a half years are probably U.S. citizens,” said Payan. “They are Americans … born in El Paso, Socorro or Horizon. Juárez had close to 100,000 American citizens living in the city before the violence begun.”

Rodolfo Rubio, a demographer from El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Ciudad Juárez, estimated that the number of persons who have moved to the United States — not necessarily to El Paso — in the last three years because of the drug-related violence could be from 30,000 to 50,000.

Citing recent figures from the Instituto Nacional de Geografía Estadística e Informática, México’s equivalent to the U.S. Census, Rubio said that Cd. Juárez has the largest number of houses that could be catalogued as seasonal homes in the past year.

“What does this mean? It means that those people live in both sides!” he said. “Evidently, we have a bi-national living space where people move about with ease. This is a factor that does not permit us to know with scientific accuracy what’s going on.”

The Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática statistics also showed that the number of unoccupied dwellings in Cd. Juárez in 2010 reached 111,103.

He said that in order to quantify the number of people going from one place to the other, estimates have to take into account the complexity of dual citizenship, of shared business zones, family relations and the general interdependence found within border communities.

“We would need to see how many of the people, who aparently abandoned the city and went to El Paso, are people that still move back and forth in the two cities,” Rubio said. “Perhaps some decided to rent or to buy a house there (in El Paso), but not necessarily abandoned the city.”

In any case, according to statistics from the Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática — the Mexican equivalent of the U.S. Census Bureau — in 2010 the number of empty housing units in Ciudad Juárez reached 111,103.

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared a war on the drug cartels in December 2006, more than 35,000 people have been killed in México. More than 7,000 of those killings have occurred in Ciudad Juárez.

Aside from U.S. citizens, undocumented individuals may also be a part of the exodus, but Payan said that not only are those individuals a small percentage, they are also difficult to track.

“There are a few people that will be without papers or documents. There aren’t going to be very many–percentage wise, they are in a few digits,” Payan said. “There might be a small percentage, who are living in El Paso with their B1 and B2 visas, but they are legally here.”

A B1 or B2 visa is essentially a crossing card that is renewable every 10 years, and it allows cardholders to cross into the United States no further than 25 miles from the border for a period of six months. However, that six-month period is difficult to regulate because it begins when one enters the U.S., but there is no record of when they return to México.

“In that sense, there is a gray area of legally and illegality that is very difficult to discern,” Payan said.  “This may potentially allow those cardholders to overstay their visas, and if these individuals were part of the exodus, it would be difficult to count them because the end date of their six-month period is unknown.”

According to U.S. Department of State figures, the number of non-immigrant visas issued through the Cd. Juárez ports of entry has declined since 2001, when it reached 336,290. By 2010, the number was 109,875.

Not just children from Juárez

With the exception of the Socorro Independent School District, the school districts in El Paso County have not seen a significant population increase since the drug war in Cd. Juárez started.

According to Texas Education Agency figures, between the 2006-2007 and the 2009-2010 academic years, El Paso Independent School District’s student population went from 62,857 to 63,378 students, while the Socorro school district population grew from 38,693 to 42,676 for the 2010-11 year. Both districts showed increases in the number of students enrolled in English as Second Language programs as well as students classified as Limited English Proficiency (LEP).

None of the schools districts released information on the number of current students transferring from schools in México. Texas Public Information requests to EPISD, SISD and the Ysleta Independent School District were rejected with the argument that the districts don’t keep an official record of where students come from.

Some schools in El Paso, such as Franklin and Coronado High Schools, and El Dorado High School in Socorro have shown significant increases in ESL population, but EPISD and SISD’s authorities stated that their enrollment increases are not necessarily due to an influx of Juarenses coming to El Paso, and they attribute much of this trend to Fort Bliss expansion.

“As far as coming directly from Juárez, well it is not necessarily just Juárez.  Just in December we had an inflow of students who came from military families,” said Jennifer Davila, coordinator for bilingual education at SISD.

According to Sgt. John D. Ortiz, Ft. Bliss public affairs chair, since 2005, around 27,000 soldiers have moved into the city along with some 54,000 family members.

“Regarding the children of people in the service, there are several elementary schools on base that work with the El Paso Independent School District,” Ortiz said. “Chapin High School is located on military property, but EPISD assists in busing children to schools within their area also.”

There are no official estimates of the number of students enrolled in public schools, who cross the border back and forth every day.  Payan said that many people report an address in El Paso when registering for school. He said that it could be a relative’s house where they get their mail, and this action not only allows that student to enter an El Paso school, it creates a huge trust issue.

“People are hiding their identity, their info, their place of residence. The system created a world of shadows,” Payan said. “People cannot easily say that they go to an elementary school in El Paso and live in Juárez.”

For the same reason, it is almost impossible to trace how many of those students actually moved their residence to El Paso. Furthermore, because the majority of them were already enrolled in the school system, their move to El Paso wouldn’t have an impact on the districts’ statistics.

Mayor Cook said that individuals who are seeking an education are more than welcome and that as tax payers, they have the right to be educated.

“In a classroom, you have to accommodate people no matter where they came from. To me, it doesn’t matter if they are coming from Juárez or New York City,” Cook said. “If they are tax payers, they pay for that education. If they are renters, their landlord pays the taxes and the landlord is paying for their education.”

Growing number of business

The growing number of businesses in El Paso that originated in México has been another aspect of the exodus. Several restaurants such as Aroma, Burritos Crisostomo and Maria Chuchena have opened in El Paso in the last few years and have shown a strong interest in staying here.

According to the Juárez Chamber of Commerce, more than 10,000 small businesses have closed due to the violence in the city, and although some of those businesses are opening in El Paso, Payan argued that there is more to that statistic than what it suggests.

“Not all business are fleeing Juárez… Some have closed in Juárez, but Aroma and Maria Chuchena are still open in Juárez. Is that fleeing or is that expanding?” Payan said.

José Luis Mauricio, president of La Red, a networking organization created by businessmen from Juárez to help each other in El Paso, said the membership of the organization grew from seven people at the beginning of 2010 to more than 195 active members by mid April of 2011. Of those, 70 percent are U.S. citizens with strong economic and personal ties to Juárez.

The high percentage of U.S. citizens moving or expanding their businesses from Juárez to El Paso would show that only a small number of Juarenses have sought to move to the U.S. through special visas, such as treaty or investor visas (E1, E2 or TN/TD visas for NAFTA professionals). However, the number of E1 and E2 visas issued to Mexican’s between 2005 and 2010 grew consistently every year, and showed a large increase between 2008 and 2009 from 1,829 to 2,479.  One year later, the number has decreased to 1,969.  These figures included all the visas issued to Mexican citizens, not just to those from Cd. Juárez.

In order to get an E-1 visa, applicants must prove that they have the funds to make a substantial investment in the United States (between $100,000 and $150,000) and that they have a business plan that proves that the investment would generate jobs.

“For a medium-sized Mexican business this is a lot of cash,” said Humberto Guerrero, an immigration lawyer. “Besides that, the visa used to be valid for five years, but now it is only for one year–renewable year by year. For many of them, moving would be extremely risky.”

Applying for a TN visa is also a complicated process because the applicant needs to find an employer who is willing to petition for him/her. In the current economic situation, Guerrero said, not many companies are sponsoring people from abroad.

The number of TN/TD visas issued to Mexicans increased from 3,079 in 2005 to 5,455 in 2010, but they reached a high of 7,586 in 2008. These numbers include all Mexicans, not just those from Juárez.

Guerrero said that many of the businesses moving here from Juárez are owned by U.S. citizens who live in Juárez. Based on his experience as an immigration lawyer, he said that 80 percent of the people from Juárez, who are not U.S. citizens but are moving to El Paso, don’t have a permit to come.

Mauricio said that the Juarenses who migrated as a result of the violence in Juárez are helping to maintain a strong economy in El Paso.

“Their impact can be seen everywhere. They are opening business and creating jobs, buying expensive houses and are sending children to private schools,” Mauricio said. “Probably 20 percent of the people now in El Paso closed their businesses there (in Juárez).”


Editor’s note: Josie Burzinsky contributed to this story.

(Raymundo Aguirre/

(Raymundo Aguirre/

One thought on “Mexodus – Unrelenting violence and lawlessness forces thousands of middle-class Mexicans to relocate seeking safety in the U.S. and in more peaceful regions in México

  1. The drug violence already existed. Drug trafficking is a violent business. You can be very sure if the Mexican government stopped all attacks on the cartels. The violence would still continue. Or do, in fact, Mexican citizens prefer to have drug trafficking continue as long as they keep their heads buried in the sand and the killing is quiet and intermittent. When the cartels take over the government will things be better? The cartels now have so much money and power that even legalization may be too late.

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