December 5, 2008

A Migrant Exodus?

Frontera NorteSur

Nobody knows for sure how many people like Dona Maria Trinidad will make the journey back to Mexico. A longtime resident of southern California, the 72-year-old woman prepared to abandon her home earlier this year and return to her native state of Guerrero. “I was crying and so was my son,” Dona Maria said, “but they increased the payment a lot.”

In 2008, Dona Maria was far from alone in coping with a personal economic crisis in a land where hopes and dreams suddenly turned sour. An almost perfect storm of rising unemployment, home foreclosures and constant deportations of undocumented workers subsequently inspired predictions of a mass exodus of Mexican migrants like Dona Maria from the US.

Alicia Barcena, executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, recently predicted as many as three million Mexicans would be forced to leave the US. Citing statistics from the Worldwide Association of Mexicans Abroad, the migrant working group of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party warned that 800,000 Mexican-born residents of the US were in the process of losing their homes.

As the economic crisis deepened this year, scattered reports from Mexican border cities appeared to confirm predictions of a mass exodus, whether due to the deportations by US immigration authorities or because of the ill economic winds blowing from the ruins of Wall Street. In Reynosa, Tamaulipas, the non-profit Migrant House reported assisting 8,000 people during the first 8 months of 2008, a huge jump from the 5,500 migrants served by the facility last year. Ciudad Juarez’s own Migrant House saw the number of people seeking help shoot up 600 percent during a two-month period last summer.

In Sonora, meanwhile, local authorities witnessed a surge of Mexicans voluntarily returning to their homeland.

“Currently, there is the self-deportation every day of almost 1,500 Mexicans, of which 800 do it through Nogales and 700 do it through Naco or Agua Prieta,” said Enrique Flores Lopez, head of the Sonora state migrant protection commission.

But many migration scholars and other observers are skeptical about the possibilities of a mass exodus of Mexican migrants from El Norte.

Commenting in the Mexico City daily La Jornada, Rafael Alarcon, director of the social studies department for El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana, recently wrote how the specter of mass expulsions of Mexicans from the US has been a periodic issue since the deportations of the Great Depression. In many cases, such as in the aftermath of the 1986 Simpson-Rodino law that legalized many undocumented workers but left others out in the cold, dire warnings of large-scale expulsions from the US proved inaccurate, Alarcon observed.

According to Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM), the rate of Mexicans deported from the US has been high but steady during the last three years. The INM reported this year that the US expelled 515,000 Mexicans in 2006, 513,000 in 2007 and 406,000 during the first 8 months of 2008.

Despite lay-offs in the construction and other sectors that heavily employ migrants,many analysts concur that Mexican immigrants in the US will do their best to weather the economic storm. Federico Besserer, head of the anthropology department at the Autonomous University of Mexico, said the internal economies of large, resilient Mexican migrant communities provide alternative employment opportunities. Tighter US border controls could also discourage undocumented migrants who are thinking of temporarily returning to Mexico until the US economic situation improves.

In this sense, given the unfolding economic crisis south of the border, returning to Mexico could well prove to be the economic equivalent of jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

In an interview with the Mexican press, migrant researcher Rodolfo Rubio of the Ciudad Juarez campus of El Colegio de la Frontera Norte doubted millions of Mexicans will kiss goodbye to the tattered but still alluring American Dream, especially people with years of residence and roots in the US. Many of the people returning to Mexico this year, Rubio contended, were newcomers to the US who could not find work. The border scholar questioned how Mexico could cope with a sudden influx of millions of people looking for work.

“I don’t think this will happen, but what will we do with all those Mexicans?” Rubio asked. “Is Mexico really prepared to receive them? I don’t know what will happen if these people really return.”

Mexican government officials have expressed concern at the social implications of millions of new people searching for non-existent jobs and competing for scarce resources. Border communities, in particular, are worried they will be hard-pressed to serve the needs of new residents at a time when local factories are laying off workers. More than a few observers have warned that a mass return of migrants could create a new fertile recruiting ground for organized crime.

A related and potentially explosive problem involves the lack of internal and external employment opportunities in migrant-sending communities, which are already experiencing a reduction in the amount of dollars sent home by relatives in the US. A migrant stream which functions as an economic escape route for many communities is increasingly dried up for the upcoming generation of migrant workers.

In response to a possible migrant crisis, some government entities are setting aside funds or launching modest programs. Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies, for instance, recently approved about $60 million for small business development. The money is earmarked for the Secretariat of Agriculture’s 2009 Fonregion program.

“This is an important program for compatriots who return from the United States so they will have resources at hand to generate productive projects,” said Congressman Francisco Dominguez Servien, vice-coordinator of the National Action Party fraction of the Chamber of Deputies.

The legislation targets 10 states identified as the biggest migrant-expelling zones, including Chihuahua, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Durango, Queretaro, Michoacan, Yucatan, Guerrero, Chiapas, and Puebla.

Other migrant programs are being administered at the state level. Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Erbard Casaubon announced this fall that the local unemployment benefits program would be extended to returning migrants in 2009.

In Tamaulipas, the state government has signed an agreement with migrant advocacy organizations and the municipal administrations of Reynosa, Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo to provide extra assistance to migrants.

Under the accord, a small fund of about $120,000 was approved for medical services, food, transportation and communication. To meet rising demand, the state government requested more than two million dollars in new funding from the federal government for the opening and operating of four migrant centers in the border communities of Nuevo Laredo, Miguel Aleman, Reynosa and Matamoros.

Meanwhile, many Mexican migrants are hedging their bets in the Promised Land. Taurino Castrejon Salgado, a Guerrero leader of the Union of Campesinos and Mexican Emigrants (UCEM), said the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States has strengthened the decision of many migrants to remain north of the border.

“When thinking about the Mexican or the US crisis, the Mexican or Guerrero native prefers to endure the one in the United States,” Castrejon said, “because they are already over there and believe that it is only a matter of waiting days or months to normalize their situations,”

According to Castrejon, about one million Guerrero natives reside in the US, with large concentrations in Illinois and California. Approximately 90 percent of the migrants do not have legal residency papers, he added.

Itzel Nayeli Ortiz Zaragoza, coordinator of the federal Interior Ministry’s Paisano Program, said the winter holiday season, in which about 1.5 million Mexican migrants are expected to visit the country of their birth, will be an important test of whether predictions of a mass return come true or not.

“We don’t discount (mass returns),” Ortiz said, “but the studies we have indicate that the behavioral routine continues being the same.”

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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