Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Richard Alba

Committee Members

Paul Attewell

Deborah Carr

Leslie McCall

Subject Categories

Demography, Population, and Ecology | Gerontology | Inequality and Stratification | Medicine and Health | Migration Studies | Sociology


older adults, return migration, selection, disability, wealth


Foreign-born individuals make up a growing share of older adults in the US. Older immigrants offer an important vantage point from which to investigate integration because outcomes at older ages can be considered “final” measures providing empirical evidence for theoretical understandings of the forces impacting immigrant trajectories. However, considering the non-negligible portion of immigrants that ultimately return to their country of origin it is impossible to get the full range of immigrant outcomes without considering returnees. Further, patterns of return may differ across the life course with distinct economic, social, and health considerations at older ages. However, the impact of selective return migration, including considerations of heterogeneity by life stage, on immigrant outcomes at older ages remains understudied.

Using Mexican immigrants to the US as a case study, the largest immigrant group in the US with high rates of return migration, this dissertation answers the following questions: (1) how does the magnitude of return migration differ by age at return? (2) do stayers, younger returnees, and older returnees differ on key outcomes (focusing on wealth and disability), and if so, how? (3) do structural factors impact correlates of older age return, and if so, how? The main obstacle to accurately assess the full range of immigrant trajectories is the absence of data on return migration. Here multiple years of data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) are combined with the Mexican Health and Aging Study (MHAS) to create a unique dataset that includes Mexican born individuals that remain in the US into older ages and those that have returned to Mexico. This is complemented by Census Bureau data is used to estimate the magnitude of return.

Using a residual method to estimate return migration by age, I find a bimodal pattern of return, that peaks both during prime working ages and after retirement age. Additionally, estimates of key demographic, socioeconomic, health, and migration characteristics by return group – stayers, younger returnees (before age 50), and older returnees (50 and older) show evidence of positive selection on economic and health outcomes into return. Across the life course return is associated with higher likelihood of positive wealth accumulation and, following the 2008 recession in the US, greater net wealth. This returnee advantage is robust to the inclusion of variables representing a wide range of factors impacting residence decisions. Further, I find evidence of older age return as a means of asset maximization, pointing to the unique economic considerations of older immigrants as they approach retirement. Stayers also have a higher prevalence of disability as compared to both younger and older returnees, results which are robust to controls. This finding is novel because it stands in opposition to assumptions about the direction of health selective return migration, or the “salmon bias,” and provides an explanation for a disability crossover from younger into older ages. Overall, I find that a portion of Mexican immigrants remaining in the United States into older ages that are particularly vulnerable in terms of wealth and disability.

The systematic differences between immigrants who stay in the US into older age and those who return to their country of origin mean that without accounting for the possibility of non-random selection of return, fiscal and social welfare implications of those who remain cannot be accurately estimated. These results give clear indication that research omitting returnees, especially returnees at older ages who have spent a considerable portion of their adult life in the US, systematically excludes a group of immigrants with largely positive outcomes. Absent the inclusion of older returnees or, at the very least, the acknowledgment of potential bias, research that only considers a residual population of stayers cannot make reliable conclusions about the life course trajectory of Mexican immigrants in the US. This research lays the groundwork for future research on differential selection into return by age and its implications for immigrant integration, stratification, and mobility – both of the Mexican immigrant population to the US and other immigrant populations worldwide.