The number of U.S.-born citizens residing in Mexico is close to 1.5 million, the U.S. Embassy estimated in 2019. U.S. citizens are Mexico’s largest group of immigrants, and the group itself is diverse—many of them are U.S.-born children who have accompanied their parents back to Mexico, others live in border communities and cross back and forth between two interconnected homes, still others are retirees who have settled in popular expat communities like Lake Chapala or San Miguel de Allende.
These days, there’s also a new factor driving immigration to Mexico: the increase of remote work, which has allowed generally well-educated and well-paid professionals to pack their bags and settle-in to trendy Mexican neighborhoods, trying to escape high rents in places like Los Angeles and New York City and grasping for a sense of normalcy among pandemic restrictions.
One of the prime destinations for these workers is Mexico City, a mainstay on international lists of top places to visit and favorite destinations for expats. Remote workers often book several months in one of the many Airbnb rentals in popular neighborhoods in the city’s Cuauhtémoc borough and connect with fellow expats via a well-developed network of Facebook and WhatsApp groups. (Here, there is another question of who gets to be called an “expat” and who is called an informal immigrant, but that is a topic for a different column.) Beyond remote workers, many tourists have also chosen Mexico City as a destination during the pandemic, thanks to the country’s lack of travel restrictions.
Today, if you walk through neighborhoods like Condesa, Roma or Hipódromo, you can see and hear this phenomenon in real time: Stroll around Parque México or grab a coffee on the well-trafficked Alváro Obregón avenue and you might hear as much English as you do Spanish. You might also walk past buildings that have started to charge rent in dollars, or by posters, made by a group called the Good Guest Collective, reminding visitors to wear masks.
The proliferation of remote workers and the continued attractiveness of tourism in Mexico City during the pandemic has complex effects on everyday life in the metropolis. There are the ethical gymnastics surrounding mobility and travel during the health crisis, and those who would raise eyebrows at high-earning foreigners contributing to the overburdening of an already overburdened healthcare system. There is the issue of “tourist gentrification,” and how the popularity of certain neighborhoods among foreigners and wealthy Mexicans is leading to displacement of long-term local residents and the shuttering of long-standing local businesses in favor of “hipper” alternatives.
On the other hand, there is significant evidence that immigration and the wide variety of ideas and experiences it brings has real economic benefits in places like Mexico City. What’s more, during the pandemic in particular, foreign customers and tourists with disposable incomes have been a lifeline to many local businesses in neighborhoods like Roma or Condesa.
When I look at all this, as an American who has chosen to live in Mexico, I’m forced to stare some hard questions in the eye: What are the roles and responsibilities of remote workers or other foreigners, like myself, who have chosen to live in Mexico City, or to visit it for an extended period of time? How can we minimize any harms our stay may have, and contribute to building a better city for everyone?
I’ve been in Mexico City for a year now, and it’s a place I’m proud to call my home. It is, as I’ve written before, a place that’s easy to fall in love with, and it’s not surprising that many foreigners who have the option to live and work from anywhere pick to do so here. I think Mexico City’s diversity is beautiful, and has significant social, cultural and economic benefits.
At the same time, in order to make sure these benefits can truly take shape, we have to approach the increase of remote workers and other high-earning foreigners in Mexico City with a certain intentionality.
To start, there are several key accounting questions: How many high-earning foreign nationals have moved to the trendy areas of Mexico City during the past few years, and what effect have they played in urban development? How has the pandemic changed this number, and what can we expect in the future?
Country-wide, the population of U.S. citizens living in Mexico has increased steadily over the past three decades—as the San Diego Union Tribune noted in 2019, the number of Americans south of the border has more than quadrupled since 1990. According to Mexico’s most recent census, around 797,000 Americans officially called Mexico home in 2020, up from 739,000 in 2015.
To take a local example, if we zoom in to Cuauhtémoc, the borough that contains Mexico City’s internationally popular Condesa, Hipódromo, Roma Norte and Roma Sur neighborhoods, we can find 6,971 registered immigrants as of 2020—67.7 percent of which live in the four aforementioned neighborhoods, said Sandra Cuevas, the mayor of Cuauhtémoc. This is a small portion of the borough’s 550,000 residents, Cuevas pointed out.
But these official numbers, on a national and local level, only capture a fraction of Americans living in Mexico—as noted above, there are actually more than a million U.S. citizens throughout the country. This is because many U.S. passport holders enter the country on a 180-day tourist visa. After six months, some choose to overstay their visa, thanks to lax penalties, and others briefly leave the country and enter on another tourist visa.
While there are economic arguments for making tourism and mobility as easy as possible, the inability to pinpoint the number of long-term foreign residents presents problems when it comes to strategic urban planning. Facilitating paths for long-term immigrants to Mexico to formalize residency—making this the norm, rather than the exception—could be an important step forward. While the remote worker phenomenon is a new one, data is urgent in order to plan for the future, particularly on the local level.
Though it’s true that there are many complex factors affecting housing markets, local businesses, health systems and neighborhood growth, and we shouldn’t overstate the role of any one group like remote workers, there’s still a need for proactive municipal and national planning to ensure that: 1) Mexico City is able to seize upon the economic potential of an increase of remote workers or other long-term immigrants, and 2) long-term residents of the communities popular among foreigners are guaranteed access to affordable housing and other services, while local businesses get the support they need.
The fact that more than a million Americans live in Mexico is often forgotten and little discussed, but it’s a critical reflection of the interconnectedness of our two countries, and a reminder that mobility goes both ways. It’s a reality that we should acknowledge, celebrate, and plan around, on both sides of the border.
At the same time, those of us foreigners living in Mexico City and throughout the country also need to approach our time here with intentionality, thinking critically about our roles in the community and working to be better neighbors. After all, it’s a low price to pay for living in one of the best places in the world.