The little-noticed surge across the U.S.-Mexico border:
It’s Americans, heading south.
SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico — Spanish friars brought the faith to this colonial city in Mexico’s central highlands.
The silver barons of the 18th century built its mansions. Now comes the pickleball invasion.
It started with just a few American retirees. These days, two dozen players fill the courts at the municipal sports center most mornings, swinging paddles at plastic balls. There are so many clubs in Mexico dedicated to the U.S. sport that a tournament was held here last year.
“It was a madhouse,” said Victor Guzmán, a 67-year-old entrepreneur from Charlotte who helped pull the event together.
President Trump regularly assails the flow of migrants crossing the Mexican border into the United States. Less noticed has been the surge of people heading in the opposite direction.
Mexico’s statistics institute estimated this month that the U.S.-born population in this country has reached 799,000 — a roughly fourfold increase since 1990. And that is probably an undercount. The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City estimates the real number at 1.5 million or more.
They’re a mixed group. They’re digital natives who can work just as easily from Puerto Vallarta as Palo Alto. They’re U.S.-born kids — nearly 600,000 of them — who’ve returned with their Mexican-born parents. And they’re retirees like Guzmán, who settled in this city five years ago and is now basically the pickleball king of San Miguel.
If the thousands of Mexicans moving home are taken into account, the flow of migrants from the United States to Mexico is probably larger than the flow of Mexicans to the United States.
The American immigrants are pouring money into local economies, renovating historic homes and changing the dynamics of Mexican classrooms.
“It’s beginning to become a very important cultural phenomenon,” Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign minister, said in an interview. “Like the Mexican community in the United States.”
And yet, he said, Mexican authorities know little about the size or needs of their largest immigrant group. He has been tasked by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador with changing that.
Mexican authorities say that many of the Americans are probably undocumented — typically, they’ve overstayed their six-month visas. But the government has shown little concern.
“We have never pressured them to have their documents in order,” Ebrard said. Typically, violators pay a small fine. Villareal shrugged.
“We like people who come to work and help the economy of the city — like Mexicans do in the United States.”
While the United States is deeply divided over immigration, American immigrants here have largely been welcomed. In San Miguel — where about 10 percent of the city’s 100,000 residents are U.S. citizens — Mayor Luis Alberto Villareal delivers his annual State of the Municipality address in English and Spanish.
Thanksgiving is celebrated a few weeks after Mexico’s Day of the Dead. Restaurants have adopted “American timing” — serving dinner at the ungodly hour of 6 p.m. — the mayor reports.
The U.S. population in Mexico is still much smaller than the Mexican immigrant population north of the border, which is estimated at around 11 million. But quietly, Americans are putting their imprint on Mexican towns.
About 35,000 Americans live in the beach resort of Puerto Vallarta (the destination for the Love Boat in the old television series). About 20,000 Americans reside near Lake Chapala, in central Mexico, according to the U.S. Embassy.
Americans are renovating homes in the historic center of Merida, the Yucatecan capital. They’re savoring Pacific Ocean views from homes on Gringo Hill in Sayulita. There are so many Americans in Mexico City’s trendy Condesa neighborhood that the guitarists who stroll outside the cafes ask for tips in English.
For all the images of worn-down Central Americans crossing Mexico in caravans, the vast majority of immigrants to this country — around 75 percent — are from the United States.
Driving around San Miguel, you can see the foreigners’ influence: million-dollar homes with chefs’ kitchens and sunken tubs not far from local dwellings of battered, unpainted brick.