A Long Line In The Sand

Mexican Perspectives On Mexican Immigration To The U.s.

Katy June-Friesen
19 min read
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Of all people, New Mexicans should understand that borders aren't simply about physical boundaries of land and territory; they're also about people and cultures that can shift and change. In the past few weeks, massive pro-immigrant rallies have forced the U.S. to publicly address the growing cultural and economic contributions of peoples from countries south of our border.

Last Sunday, dozens of political and faith-based organizations in New Mexico brought thousands of protestors to the streets of Albuquerque and Santa Fe to defend the rights of immigrants. On Monday, a National Day of Action was called, encouraging hundreds of thousands of protestors to march in cities around the country.

New Mexico and surrounding states, of course, are a product of contested borders between Spain, Mexico, the U.S. and Native peoples. These days, increased migration from Mexico to the U.S. has prompted some to warn that the trend is part of a reconquista effort to reclaim the Southwest. Additionally, the recent violence along our southern border has reinforced the belief that immigration and crime are intimately connected.

The federal government is currently considering new ways to secure the border against illegal immigrants and protect border agents. The discussion is not new. In Washington, the immigration conversation has always centered on concepts of restriction and national security.

In Congress, the House recently passed a bill that would make it a felony to be in the country illegally. The legislation also calls for the construction of a 700-mile-long fence along the U.S.-Mexico border and makes it a crime to give humanitarian aid to undocumented immigrants.

Last week, the Senate attempted to create a more comprehensive piece of immigration legislation. Both New Mexico Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman proposed substantial amendments to this legislation. By the end of the week, however, partisan disputes led to a breakdown in negotiations. Any progress on immigration legislation will have to wait until the Senate returns from its recess next week.

Of particular concern since 9/11 has been whether non-Mexican terrorists are entering our country via Mexico. In July 2005, Chief of Border Patrol David Aguilar, testifying before the House of Representatives about illegal immigration on the Southwest border, said, “The exponential growth in the apprehension of OTM [other than Mexican] illegal entrant aliens and, in most cases, their subsequent release is a major impediment to the removal process.” Aguilar was referring to the fact that non-Mexican immigrants are typically released until they are supposed to show up for their hearing—which they rarely do. Mexicans, on the other hand, are often simply deported back over the border.

The number of non-Mexicans crossing from Mexico has increased. In January, the Christian Science Monitor reported that, according to Mexican government sources, the number of non-Mexicans apprehended at the border had risen significantly in the last year. The majority of these non-Mexicans were from Central and South America. Barely 3 percent were from elsewhere, including what Border Patrol calls “countries of interest.” The number of immigrants from such countries, which are designated as places known to harbor terrorists, are not divulged by Border Patrol for “national security reasons.”

Yet the majority of immigrants crossing the southern border of the U.S. each year is clearly still Mexican. And while the discussion about national security continues, there is much less national discussion about the root causes of rising emigration by non-terrorist Mexicans. Most Americans know little about what life is like in Mexico, and why people are so eager to leave it.

Most Mexicans, of course, are coming here simply to find work. They are coming north because of the huge wage gap between Mexico and the United States. They are coming because they have to.

In January, I traveled to Cuernavaca, a city of nearly 1 million located in the Mexican state of Morelos, to talk with people about poverty and economics. Most of the Mexicans I talked with had experienced poverty firsthand. Almost everyone had either been to the U.S. or currently had family members working here. Most of the people I visited were women—the social glue and sustaining force of their families. Their life stories, threaded with tragedy and the everyday challenges of making a life in Mexico, conveyed an impressive capacity for survival; the kind of struggle to endure that many Americans would have a hard time even imagining.

Like an Action Movie

When Maricruz “Maggie” Miranda, 19, crossed the border to the United States, it was like a Hollywood action flick. She was 12 and her sister was 6. Their mother had dressed them as boys because she'd heard border stories about sexual abuse of young girls. In Sonora, the girls and their mother tried to cross the border three times. They hid in the shadows, ducked and crawled on the ground. On their second try, a group of men captured them and held them in a cave. The men sexually assaulted their mother. On their third try, the family paid a coyote (a professional immigrant smuggler) $2,000 per person to get them across.

“We wanted a better life,” says Maggie, who is now back in Cuernavaca. The girls and their mother planned to meet Maggie's stepfather in Chicago, where he was working in a foundry. They stayed in Arizona until they had the money to travel. In Chicago, Maggie's mother worked as a seamstress and then in a bakery. Maggie went to school there, and she remembers the terrible difficulty of not knowing English. Her classmates were mean to her because she was a new girl. They also made fun of her Spanish. Even more painful was the harassment Maggie received from less-recent Mexican immigrants.

Then Maggie's stepfather was in a car accident. When the police came to the scene they caught him and put him in jail because he was undocumented. Her mother, afraid the government would take her girls, sent them back to Mexico. Her mother returned later and has recrossed the border three times since to find work. She is getting remarried soon and may try to cross the border illegally a fourth time to find work. But Maggie's extended family will remain in the same place they've always lived—a ravine in Cuernavaca. With the money made in the United States and sent back home, they've built one new house on the spot, designed by Maggie, who has studied architecture.

Maggie is different from many of her Mexican peers in several ways. First of all, she doesn't want to go north again, although she knows opportunities are scarce in Mexico. She'd like to revisit the U.S. someday, or maybe go to school there, but she doesn't want to live there. The individualistic culture of the U.S. doesn't jibe with her, she says. She prefers Mexico. She admits living in the U.S. is good, “depending on what you want from life.” If you want money, it's a good place to be. But after living through a few painful years as an immigrant—which included a struggle with bulimia—Maggie says, “I learned that I don't want that for my life.”

A Broken System

More than 10 million Mexicans currently live in the United States. According the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, the Mexican immigrant population in the United States increased by 2.1 million from 2000 to 2004. However, for all the hype about the influx of Mexicans, a 2005 survey by the National Immigration Forum showed that Americans are not necessarily anti-immigrant. People simply think our immigration system is broken, and many want illegal immigration curbed. According to the survey, “Three quarters of American voters support a comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform proposal that combines toughness, fairness, a guest worker program, family reunification, and a path to legal residency for undocumented immigrants who are already here.”

The idea of a guest worker program between the U.S. and Mexico is not new. During World War II, Mexico contributed to the U.S. war effort by providing temporary agricultural labor through what was called the “Bracero program.” This program continued until 1964. When it ended, immigration continued, evidenced by the increased number of apprehensions along the border. The difference was that Mexicans began coming to the U.S. to settle permanently.

Today, it is time-consuming and expensive for Mexicans to arrange for legal emigration to the U.S. Getting any kind of visa, for example, requires a certain amount of money in a Mexican bank account, which is impossible for the majority of poor Mexicans. Often, visas are denied without explanation.

A Job that Pays

Maggie hopes that going north will not be necessary for her survival. Yet in Mexico, Maggie's life is already different than most of her girlfriends'. Her friends, if they haven't moved to the U.S., already have babies. Maggie recently married and got a cat, but she doesn't plan on having kids anytime soon, and she has a nontraditional view of marriage. She says she and her husband are equals; they try to balance her feminism with his machismo.

For now, Maggie is going to follow her dream and go to school to study art. She knows it will be hard to get a job. But in Mexico, it's always hard to get a job that pays.

For most Mexicans, having a job doesn't guarantee survival. Because the number of people entering the labor force far exceeds the number of jobs being created, half the population has to find jobs in the “informal” economy, regardless of their education level—sweeping streets, selling crafts and food, playing music. For those who work, including farmers, a living wage is nearly impossible to find. The majority of Mexicans—80 percent—live in poverty.

Gerardo Thijssen, a community organizer and father of the liberation theology movement, also lives in Cuernavaca. He says most Mexicans live in poverty, but some also live in misery. Mexicans who live in poverty can barely cover the cost of food, clothes and housing. Those living in misery cannot even cover the cost of food. According to Thijssen, nearly half the poor in Mexico live in misery, particularly in rural indigenous communities.

In December, the Mexican government raised the minimum wage by 4 percent to $4.50 a day (U.S. dollars). But with the buying power of the Mexican salary deflated over the last 20 years, most Mexicans are scraping to buy what they need. Twenty years ago in Mexico, one person could make a wage to support a family. Today, at least six people have to work to make a supporting wage.

Lucia Villarvera Perez, who makes $1.30 (U.S. dollars) a day as a domestic worker, has trouble paying for her daughters to go to school. Although public school is officially free to Mexican citizens, it costs Perez $280 to enroll her one daughter in junior high. Then she must pay for school supplies, uniforms and books.

While Perez' husband works in Florida and sends money home to his wife and five daughters, she maintains the family's small cinderblock home in La Estacion, a squatter settlement in Cuernavaca. The illegal settlement has served as a community for poor families for 60 years. Today, 10,000 families live on the patch of land, which runs along the now-defunct railroad tracks in the middle of the city. Living space is extremely tight. Nationally, about half the population lives more than six people to a room.

“The problem of the economy is the main national problem,” says Dr. Ross Gandy, professor of philosophy and sociology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and author of the book Mexico: The End of the Revolution. Gandy says the Mexican economy no longer belongs to Mexico. Instead, it is dominated by powerful foreign corporations such as Coca-Cola, Citibank, Kimberly-Clark and Wal-Mart.

In the last 20 years, the income gap in Mexico has become even more pronounced. Just 10 percent of the population in Mexico controls 45 percent of the national economy, says Gandy. Neither the small middle class nor the lower class have been able to compete with the effects of free trade.

Answering to the IMF

Many observers say the economic problem in Mexico got considerably worse after the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) took effect in 1994. But Mexico first started inviting foreign corporations in during the late '40s, and the so-called globalization of Mexico kicked into high gear in the early '80s.

In the '50s and '60s, says Thijssen, Mexico produced for Mexico and tried to stop importation. There was a minimum salary for workers, social welfare help and education was completely free through the university level. There were free hospitals for the poor and preventative health campaigns. Many people in the middle class were able to get ahead. But all that has changed.

In the early '80s, Mexico announced it was on the verge of defaulting on its foreign debt, due in part to a fall in oil prices and a rise in interest rates. During this time, many other countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia experienced the same problems. They turned to the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—the international institution ostensibly designed to help countries suffering from financial and economic crises—for help.

The IMF gave Mexico a $3.9 billion credit package. But to receive the loan, Mexico had to agree to a series of market reforms: public spending cuts, privatization of government enterprise, deregulation of industry and the opening up of Mexico for foreign trade and investment.

The IMF worked with the Mexican government and businesses to keep wages in check. Wages were supposed to follow expected levels of inflation, but inflation rose more than expected. Wages slipped further and further from meeting needs. Mexicans call the '80s the “lost decade” because real wages declined by more than 75 percent (adjusted for inflation). In accordance with IMF policies, government spending on education, development and infrastructure was reduced.

Then, in 1994, Mexico implemented IMF's requirement for trade liberalization by signing on to NAFTA, which created a free trade zone with the United States and Canada. NAFTA contained a provision that allowed 100 percent direct foreign ownership of Mexican companies. NAFTA also modified an article of the Mexican Constitution that had protected communal property, or ejidos. In this way, Mexico lost much of its control over its own economy and social health.

1994 also witnessed the country's peso devaluation, which produced the worst depression in Mexico in 60 years. This came about after foreign investors pulled their money out of Mexico, fearing the Mexican government would devalue the peso to make its exports more competitive. By the end of the year, the government was forced to devalue the peso and ask the IMF—and the U.S. Treasury—for assistance. The new agreement with the IMF required that transportation, banking and finance, railways and petrochemical industries be sold off. Meanwhile, unemployment doubled, thousands of Mexicans filed for bankruptcy, and millions dropped below the poverty line.

Leaving Home

The question for many Mexicans is whether they believe they can change things in their own country or whether leaving the country is a better solution for improving their lives. The Flores sisters, who live in the village of San Andres de la Cal near Cuernavaca, have a hard time explaining to their children why their fathers have to leave the family. Two sisters' husbands have seasonal jobs working in Canada. The sisters also have three brothers living and working in California. It's difficult for the family to be separated, but they have no choice. “They go because of need,” says Francisca.

Lidia and Francisca's husbands went to the U.S. for work once. But they had to go illegally, and their year there went badly. They prefer Canada, where they go legally as part of a seasonal work program and are assured a job. Canada's guest worker program—the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program—began in 1966 with the Caribbean countries. It was extended to Mexico in 1974, and in 1987 the private sector was given a greater role in the program. The quota on annual admission was also lifted.

The Flores sisters' husbands, who understand English but don't speak it well, make $8 an hour (Canadian) and work 10-12 hours a day in the fields. Lidia visited her husband there once. She says everyone was friendly and the boss treated them well. The Flores sisters wish it were possible for their families go to Canada with their husbands so they could all stay together. But they don't want to live anywhere else. Mexico is their home.

When the men come back to Mexico in the off-season, they work as carpenters and plumbers. The women, among other jobs, sell linens they embroider. But the effect of their temporary migration challenges family relationships. Their marriages are tested by the lengthy separations. Sometimes the husbands imagine that their wives have looked for other men while they were away. Francisca says the women worry about the same thing, but she and her husband try to keep the lines of communication open and reaffirm their fidelity when they are together.

The sisters know their children will eventually have to leave the village for work. But the work they find will pay little. Companies come to Mexico to exploit people, contend the sisters, who don't have much faith in the economy or the government. When asked who they'll vote for in the upcoming presidential election, Francisca shrugs and says, “They're all the same.”

Our Neighbors, Ourselves

As long as the Mexican economy offers few opportunities for most Mexicans to pursue a better life—or simply make a living—emigration to the United States will not stop. The U.S. and Mexico are intimately connected by free trade, and the U.S. has the upper hand. Maquiladoras, U.S.-owned manufacturing facilities in the border region, provide cheap labor to make U.S. products. The U.S. ships more of its products into Mexico than Mexico does to the U.S.

But although the United States and Mexico have an intimate economic relationship, where goods can move freely across the border, the human relationship is much different. People are not supposed to move freely across the border, even though the U.S. relies on Mexican labor in its workforce.

The recent shooting of migrant Guillermo Martinez near San Diego has reinforced the emotional divide between Mexico and the U.S. Martinez' death caused an uproar in Mexico. For Mexicans, it symbolized the United States' distrust and unfriendliness of its southern neighbor.

It's easy to focus on this sort of individual event. It is much more difficult to redirect the debate toward deeper, structural injustices of the U.S.-Mexico relationship, which affect millions every day.

In the village of Tlamacazapa, in the mountains of northeastern Guerrero state, I visited a family in their one-room house made of branches. They were beginning to dig a dry latrine next to their home—the first bathroom they've ever had. To make a living, the family sells baskets made from the palms they harvest in the mountains. The colorful dyes they use contain lead, and the village's water wells are also contaminated with arsenic. Fernando, the father, tells us his wife is very sick. They don't know what it is, and they can't afford health care, so they just pray. Sickness is familiar to them. Like many families in the village, they've lost two children to illness.

The family sells their baskets in Cuernavaca, where they can get almost $15 (U.S.) for the largest. Early in the morning, they leave the village and walk two hours through the mountains to reach the highway. Then they take a one-hour bus ride to the city. Sometimes, the whole family goes. They sell their goods in the zocalo (city center) and don't eat anything until they sell a basket. Often, they stay in the city for the weekend. They spend the night in a single rented room, which they share with other sellers.

Fernando jokes about us taking him back to the U.S. in our luggage. Then he tells us a story.

He was selling baskets in the zocalo and standing near an open-air restaurant, just far enough away that the owners wouldn't make him leave. He was watching a man eat a meal. Fernando hadn't eaten that day. His stomach was aching. He stood, his mouth watering, and watched the man eat a steak. It was the kind of meal Fernando has never eaten, not once in his entire life. Sadly, it was the kind of meal he might never eat.

For the masses of impoverished Mexicans like Fernando, struggling each day to feed their families, large-scale economic change seems unlikely. Still, the riches of the United States and the dream of opportunity linger, almost in sight, on the other side of a long line in the sand.

Mexico Facts

Daily minimum wage in Mexico: (U.S.) $4.50

Average daily wage of half the population: (U.S.) $2

Percentage of population living in poverty: 80

Percentage of population working outside the formal sector: 50

Percentage of Mexican government's budget spent on health, education and poverty combined in 2004: 7.4

Percentage of Mexican government's budget spent on debt in 2004: 50

Percentage of Mexican government's budget spent on subsidizing foreign banks in 2004: 13

Percentage of banking assets in Mexico controlled by foreign banks (2004): 83

Immigrants caught by the U.S. Border Patrol in the El Paso Sector since Oct. 1: 72,893

Estimated undocumented immigrants in New Mexico: 50,000

Estimated total immigrants in New Mexico: 150,000

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