3 February 2012 Last updated at 07:22 ET
American 'illegals' in Mexico
By Ignacio de los Reyes
BBC Mundo, Mexico City
Puerto Vallarta draws many US visitors - some of whom stay for longer
than they should
The issue of undocumented Mexican migrants in America is widely
reported. But what about the thousands of Americans living illegally
south of the border? Mexico Direct looks at why they come, and why
Mexicans aren't yet making an issue about it.
When Jessica departed the US early in 2011, she left a country where
illegal immigration is rarely off the political agenda.
Little did she imagine she herself would become an 'alien' - in Mexico.
She came to Puerto Vallarta, a tourist resort on the Pacific coast,
to work legally for a Mexican company. She took a second job to earn
extra money, first in an internet cafe and then a restaurant.
Fines for overstayers
But her employers - also Americans - never filled in the paperwork to
make her second job legal.
"I insisted, but they told me it wasn't necessary, that they would
pay me in cash every night and it was fine," she tells the BBC.
"It was clearly illegal for me to work there, but I did not take the
authorities in Mexico seriously. My employers then found themselves
in legal trouble and I feared I could face deportation, so I quit."
Last year about 1,000 US citizens were questioned over irregularities
in their immigration status, according to Mexican authorities. They
face a modest fine - up to $50 - if officials find them working
without a permit or living in Mexico without proper documents.
Those who lose their visas or are asked to leave the country and then
discovered to be overstaying are fined up to $400.
But the National Migration Institute in Mexico has no idea just how
many Americans are living or working illegally in Mexico.
There are no advocacy groups defending American aliens in Mexico.
Mexican politicians haven't raised it as a major issue - a far cry
from the controversy around illegal migration on the other side of
With thousands of people from Central America crossing into Mexico
illegally every year, and the threat from drug gangs and human
traffickers on their way to the US, the presence of undocumented
Americans is considered little more than a minor issue for Mexico's
Continue reading the main story
No one really knows how many of them there are in Mexico."
National Institute of Anthropology and History
Some are Americans tourists who decide to extend their stay in Mexico
without notifying the authorities, or students who wish to earn extra
money teaching English in Mexico City. Others just fall in love with
the Latin American lifestyle.
"No one really knows how many of them there are in Mexico. They are
usually people who live for a while in Mexico and then return home.
They do not stay indefinitely," says Monica Mora, an expert on
American migration in Mexico.
"Nowadays most Americans live legally in Mexico, working as employees
of multinational companies for a couple of years here, but also
retirees and students," says Mrs Mora, who is a researcher at the
National Institute of Anthropology and History.
According to the last Mexican census (2010), more than 738,000 people
born in the United States now live in Mexico.
Some 60,000 of them are living in the country indefinitely, mostly in
Baja California in the northwest of the country and in Mexico City.
The rest are temporary visitors and legal employees of international
Most American visitors stay within the rules - but officials say
Tropical weather, the cheaper cost of living and an exotic atmosphere
a few hours from home have drawn curious Americans to Mexico since
World War II.
They are now the largest foreign group in Mexico, according to
Elaine Levin, an expert on international migration, was one of
thousands of Americans who emigrated to Mexico 40 years ago.
She came legally and now has Mexican nationality. She says the
comfortable life of Americans in Mexico contrasts with the
persecution and harsh immigration legislation Mexicans have to face
in the US.
"There havn't been any integration issues here because this has
always been part of Mexico's history. Even the ancestors of a
candidate for the 2012 Republican Party presidential nomination, Mitt
Romney, came to Mexico as immigrants," she tells the BBC.
Continue reading the main story
After my experience here I have come to support more illegal
"In fact, Mexico treats 'gringos' much better that the US does
Mexicans," Mrs Levin says.
There is little public debate about the issue - many Mexicans would
be surprised that an American would want to come here and live
The coasts of the Baja California peninsula, the idyllic town of San
Miguel de Allende in central Mexico, and villages around Lake Chapala
(by the Pacific coast) are favourite spots for retired Americans who
come to spend their last years - and their life savings - in Mexico.
"It's still to be seen whether the news reports about the drug
violence from American networks will have an effect on this," Mrs
"Some people might think twice before going to some areas, but that
hasn't happened yet," she adds.
Even though US tourist numbers dropped 6% last year, towns like San
Miguel de Allende are still full of American-run businesses and home
owners from the US.
Warm weather and an exotic lifestyle tempt some Americans south of
Some Americans in Mexico are beginning to see a different side of the
"I used to live in a large Mexican community, in Chicago. I always
knew some of them were illegal and wondered how they could get away
with it," Jessica says.
She's now legally entitled to stay in the country and is living in
"After my experience here I have come to support more illegal
immigration. At the end of the day I would imagine most illegals have
good intentions, working to support their family, wanting a new
life," she says.
"I don't think we should make it so hard for people to get that.
Isn't that what America is all about anyway, freedom?"