Skip to main content

Mexican immigrants: Woven threads in the workforce of the northern United States

Who are the Mexican immigrants in the region, and how do they contribute to the Ninth District economy?

March 5, 2024


Erick Garcia Luna Director, Regional Outreach
Mexican roofers installing roofing tiles
TerryJ/Getty Images

Article Highlights

  • Mexican immigrants in Ninth District states have been migrating to the U.S. for decades; most came between 1995 and 2005
  • As a group, they are relatively young and have a high labor force participation rate
  • Many working immigrants may lack authorization and face uncertainty
Mexican immigrants: Woven threads in the workforce of the northern United States

Mexicans make up the largest share of immigrants in the United States. This fact not only holds for southern states but also, despite colder climates, for states in the Fed’s Ninth District.

What do we know about those who have found their way this far north from across the southern border?

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey offer a window into the characteristics and circumstances of the Mexican immigrant population in the district. These data and anecdotes from a few dozen immigrants—collected by the Minneapolis Fed in partnership with the Mexican Consulate in St. Paul, Minnesota—shine some light into the driving forces and challenges of migration.

Who, when, and why?

As of the end of 2022, an estimated 276,7611 people of Mexican descent lived across Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana. Of those, more than three-quarters are native-born, and less than a quarter were born outside of the U.S. and can be considered immigrants.

Half of those who call this region home today made their journey to the United States between 1995 and 2005, with a peak recorded in 2000. Despite the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, some 800 new arrivals from Mexico settled in the region in 2020, on par with 2019 but more than in 2021 and 2022 combined (Figure 1).

Loading chart 1...

Mexicans tend to be young when they make the decision—or one is made for them—to leave their home country. More than half arrived when they were under 20 years old (Figure 2).

Loading chart 2...

A group of workers living in St. Cloud, Minnesota, for instance, shared they had arrived in the area when they were 15 years old. They found jobs at a farm where they have now been working for more than three years. Their experience is like those of many immigrants: The need to earn a living and lack of employment opportunities in their native Morelos, Mexico, pushed them to look elsewhere. They decided to make the journey north together after an acquaintance told them about opportunities in Minnesota.

Eighty-seven percent of Mexican immigrants in the region are in the labor force, a participation rate nearly 20 percentage points higher than the Ninth District average. They are also a younger workforce with a median age of 41, compared with the median age of 47 for the overall labor force in the region.

Occupational hotspots

Roughly half of Mexican immigrant workers in the district are concentrated in four types of occupations: production, cleaning and maintenance of buildings, food preparation and service, and construction (Figure 3).

Loading chart 3...

Of production workers, 17 percent are in food-related jobs. When combined with those in agriculture, the share of Mexican immigrant workers playing a role in the region’s food production adds up to approximately 8 percent.

Even as COVID-19 raged across the world, many of these immigrants continued to work and kept the food supply flowing. “We had the option to say we weren’t feeling well and take one or two days [off] to rest, but no one was ever sent home even when it was obvious they were sick,” shared a dairy worker in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He added that just as employers needed to keep producing, immigrant workers like him could not afford to take time off.

Thirteen percent of these workers provide cleaning and maintenance services to office buildings, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses, and 11 percent work as cooks, servers, and dishwashers or in fast food.

Many of these positions pay low wages, often significantly below the average for all occupations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, average wages in food preparation and serving are 48 percent below the average, and cleaning services are 42 percent below. Despite the pay difference, these opportunities have historically been attractive for many Mexican immigrants.

Immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere have supported growth in the region’s leisure and hospitality industry since the 1990s, according to Wade Luneburg, political director with UNITE HERE Local 17. “The industry was a juggernaut, and the labor market could not keep up with its growth. Immigrants came to fill those jobs.”

Some may look for opportunities elsewhere after working in hospitality jobs for a while, a trend that accelerated during the pandemic. “Some people left the industry during COVID for jobs in industries like construction,” added Luneburg. “But in reality, the industry has been in a constant need for workers for a long time.”

During summer construction season, it is common to see Mexican immigrants working on roofs across the region because roofing is the most visible, but they are spread across a variety of construction jobs. Eighty percent of Mexican immigrants in construction occupations work as laborers, roofers, structure framers, painters, and drywall installers.

Navigating uncertainties

The future for many Mexican immigrants is clouded with uncertainty. Slightly more than a quarter of the foreign-born Mexican population in the region enjoy the benefits of U.S. citizenship, the rest are noncitizens. Noncitizens may be green card holders or possess other types of visas that allow them to legally work in the U.S., but the reality is that many lack the right documentation.

The Pew Research Center estimates that the unauthorized population in the states in this analysis stands at roughly 105,000. They also estimate that 23 percent of unauthorized people in Minnesota—the state in the district with the highest share of immigrants—are from Mexico. If this estimate is close to being accurate, about half of noncitizen Mexican immigrants in the region would not have a visa that allows them to work in the United States. But since official data do not include details on immigration status, it is difficult to know with more certainty.

Those who come to the United States looking for work without authorization may not have many other choices, according to Oswaldo Cabrera, former community affairs officer with the Mexican Consulate in St. Paul. “They migrate without going through a formal process because there are very limited options for Mexicans to apply for visas with work authorization.” He added that some private agencies do help those who may qualify for temporary visas, but “the demand for these workers far exceeds the availability and types of visas.”

Migrating without an official entry permit can involve significant costs. Recent arrivals shared having paid between $8,500 and $10,600 to cross the border. Some said they funded their journey with borrowed money from family and friends.

Apart from the monetary costs, their journey can be highly risky. A woman who recently arrived in South Dakota shared that she and a fellow immigrant had been abandoned in a border town on the U.S. side. “It was very difficult to get here,” she said. “We spent our first night sleeping in someone’s front yard, with only water from a garden hose to drink.” Despite the expense and struggles, she said she was looking ahead to the prospects of a better life.


1 Estimates were calculated using public-use microdata from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year estimates. The number of residents of Mexican origin includes those who identified as “Hispanic” and “Mexican” (“2” on the HISP variable). The shares of foreign-born include those identified as “U.S. citizen by naturalization” and “Not a citizen of the U.S.” (“4” and “5” on the CIT variable). Estimates were calculated using the person weights “PWGTP.” ACS data are subject to sampling error, meaning that they will likely differ from the values that would have been obtained by surveying 100 percent of the population. The margin of error calculated using replicate weights for the Hispanic of Mexican origin population of 276,761 is +/-3,721; for the 17,004 U.S. citizens by naturalization, Mexican born, +/- 1,147; and for the 47,969 non-U.S. citizen residents of Mexican origin, +/- 1,951.

Erick Garcia Luna
Director, Regional Outreach

Erick Garcia Luna is a Minneapolis Fed regional outreach director. In this role, he focuses on gathering and analyzing economic intelligence on the regional economy to help inform the work of the Fed. Follow him on Twitter @ErickGarciaLuna.