The long-run effects of refugees: evidence from the Mexican Revolution

March 24, 2021 | Blog
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Funding for the project on which this blog is based was provided by the Economic History Society’s Carnevali Research Grant.

By David Escamilla-Guerrero (University of St Andrews), Edward Kosack (Xavier University) & Zachary Ward (Baylor University)

By 2000, nearly 9.2 million Mexicans — nine per cent  of Mexico’s population — had moved to the United States, representing the largest migration flow of the twentieth century.  Although Mexican immigration has been significant since the early 1900s, most quantitative literature covers the period after 1970.   The first half of the twentieth century is characterized by important economic shocks and policy interventions, with scholars estimating the causal impacts of this migration flow. For example, Lee et al. (2019) estimate the impact on the employment of natives of the large-scale repatriation of those of Mexican origin between 1929 and 1934, while Clemens et al. (2018) measure the effect of the end of the Bracero Program, 1942-1964, on native wages.  Equivalent research concerning the impact of the migration flow on Mexico’s economic conditions, however, is scarce.  The exception is Kosack (2020) who examines the effect of the Bracero program on human capital investments in Mexican communities.  To fill this void, our research project exploits one of the deadliest conflicts in world history: the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1918 (Figure 1).


Figure 1.         Revolutionary army, ca. 1913

Source: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.


During the Revolution, about 1.4 million people died and another 350,000 fled across the border (Figure 2).  Hence, the conflict must have had a substantial impact on Mexican immigration at the time. The first part of the project aims to estimate municipality-level migration rates during the Mexican Revolution using novel microdata: individual border crossings from 1910 to 1920 (Figure 3).


Figure 2.         Refugees during the Mexican Revolution, ca. 1914.

Source: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.


FIGURE 3.       Mexican Broder Crossing Records. Immigration cards.

Source: authors’ collection.


Combining migration rates with pre-Revolution immigration data (Escamilla-Guerrero 2020), and local-level data on revolutionary insurgency (Dell 2012), permits the identification of changes in immigration and allows us to discriminate between refugees and economic immigrants.

The second part of the project aims to use  Revolution-induced  changes in immigration to examine the impact of refugee flows on Mexico’s long-run development.  Data on economic development exists in the censuses of 1960 and 1970.  Information which controls for local economic conditions before the Revolution has kindly been provided by Alix-Garcia & Sellars (2018), McKenzie & Rapoport (2010), and Woodruff & Zenteno (2007). With these data we intend to test the hypothesis that municipalities where migration rates increased due to revolutionary insurgency followed different development trajectories and experienced varied persistence effects.

We will focus on local-level political turnovers as a possible channel of persistence.  Mexico was ruled by a single political party (PRI) for 80 years. In 2000, the country experienced the first presidential turnover since the end of the Mexican Revolution. Novel historical data on local elections, however, reveal that turnovers at the municipality level started from the 1940s.  These data allow us to examine if municipalities where migration intensity increased due to the presence of revolutionary insurgency were the first to observe local political turnovers, which then generated better economic and development outcomes.  Clearly, immigration induced by major social conflicts such as civil wars can have long-lasting effects on local development.  The case of Mexico is unique because it experienced the necessary political and migratory changes  to permit analysis of  the relationship between migration, institutions, and development.

To contact the auhors:

Twitter: @drescamillag

Twitter: @ekosack

Twitter: @EconZach


Alix-Garcia, J. and Sellars, E. A. (2018) “Labor scarcity, land tenure, and historical legacy: Evidence from Mexico,” Journal of Development Economics, 135, pp. 504–516.

Clemens, M. A., Lewis, E. G. and Postel, H. M. (2018) “Immigration Restrictions as Active Labor Market Policy: Evidence from the Mexican Bracero Exclusion,” American Economic Review, 108(6), pp. 1468–1487.

Dell, M. (2012) “Path dependence in development: Evidence from the Mexican Revolution,” Unpublished manuscript.

Escamilla-Guerrero, D. (2020) “Revisiting Mexican migration in the Age of Mass Migration: New evidence from individual border crossings,” Historical Methods: A Journal of Quantitative and Interdisciplinary History, 53(4), pp. 207–225.

Kosack, E. and Ward, Z. (2020) “El Sueño Americano? The Generational Progress of Mexican Americans Prior to World War II,” The Journal of Economic History, 80(4), pp. 961–995.

Lee, J., Peri, G. and Yasenov, V. (2019) The Labor Market Effects of Mexican Repatriations: Longitudinal Evidence from the 1930s. Working Paper 26399. National Bureau of Economic Research.

McKenzie, D. and Rapoport, H. (2010) “Self-selection patterns in Mexico-U.S. migration: The Role of Mexican Networks,” The Review of Economics and Statistics, 92(4), pp. 811–821.

Woodruff, C. and Zenteno, R. (2007) “Migration networks and microenterprises in Mexico,” Journal of Development Economics, 82 (2), pp. 509–528.