Young men in Mexico say the US no longer offers them a better future

CCIS Associate Director, David FitzGerald, discusses the shifts in immigration from Mexico to the U.S.



Seismic shifts in immigration and demographics leave towns full of young men who once would have dreamed of the US

BY EDWARD HELMORE   APRIL 25, 2012

Border Immigration

Potential migrants say the US border crossing is not itself a dissuading factor, but racial discrimination and hostility are. Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters

In a typical year, the young men in this agricultural region of western Mexico would have made the journey north to America. But not this year or for this generation: a better future across the border is a promise they no longer trust.

“For years, we dreamed of America, but now that dream is no good,” says 18-year-old Pedro Morales, sitting in the elegant Spanish colonial square of Comala under the shadow of the spectacular Volcan de Fuego. “There are no jobs and too many problems. We don’t want to go.”

In an historic shift, the tide of immigration from Mexico to the US has stalled. Villages that were empty of young men are now full. A report published by the Pew Hispanic Center this week confirmed what was already anecdotally clear: the largest wave of immigration in US history has stalled and is now close to slipping into reverse.

Between 2005 and 2010, 1.4 million Mexicans immigrated to the United States, less than half the number that migrated between 1995 and 2000. At the same time, the number of Mexicans who moved to Mexico over the same period rose to 1.4 million, double the number over the previous five years.

Other research groups in the field say the narrowing gap in wages and relative costs of living between Mexico and the US, as well as improving education standards in Mexico, has tipped the calculation back.

“The great migration of the past five decades has been slowing for a decade,” says Doug Massey, founder of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University. “We’ve been at a point of stasis since 2009.”

On the US side, election year tough-on-immigration rhetoric has obscured the subtleties of the US-Mexico relationship.

But in Mexico, increased border controls on the US side, as well as controversial anti-immigrant legislation passed in states like Alabama and Arizona, are only overt signals that the US may have entered a period of sustained hostility toward its southern, economically vital neighbour.

Potential migrants say the border is not itself a dissuading factor, but racial discrimination and hostility, efforts to deny employment, education and healthcare are, as is increased exposure to arrest and deportation.

“The reason they’re coming home is because they have no options, no papers, and the laws are more aggressive,” says Fernando Morett, a shopkeeper in the coastal town of Chiutlan. “It’s complicated, and people are debating it. If they don’t have friends in the US and they have to pay to cross the line, it’s not worth it.”

For Mexicans already in the US, the decision to return is still fraught with uncertainty. “But at least here they have the option of food and shelter, and they suffer less than in the US,” says Morett.


Between 2005 and 2010, the same number of Mexicans entered the US as left it. Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters

The turnaround is striking. While studies that show migrant workers are net economic contributors and form the bedrock of construction, farming and catering during boom years, there is evidence the crackdown is creating a new underclass.

“It’s a huge drag on social and economic mobility in the country if
you’ve got no rights whatsoever,” says Massey. Economic improve-
ment in Mexico and across Latin America, coupled with declining
fertility rates (from an average of seven children in 1960 to just over
two now) suggests the region may soon no longer have a surplus workforce.

Further, the hardened US attitudes toward foreigners is keenly felt. Cesar Castellano, a taxi driver waiting for a fare in Comala, describes how his brother worked eight years at the same California restaurant.

“One morning the police came and searched everyone. He had no papers so they took him to the border at Tijuana. They wouldn’t let him see his family or collect his things. The restaurant gave him nothing. Now he’s working in construction here.”

The choice to stay home appears to have little to with the ongoing militarisation of the long US-Mexico border that started in the mid-1980s. The border now costs $3.5bn annually in fence construction and technology that includes drones and motion sensors. Critics say it’s an effective local employment boon – the number of border agents has tripled in recent years – but little more: the measures do not in themselves dissuade migrants.

Expansive new detention cells at typical border crossing are reported virtually empty. “We will always get over we want to,” says one of the young men in Colama. “If there were better opportunities in the US, we would go.”

David Fitzgerald, an immigration expert at the University of California San Diego, believes that 95% of those who attempt the crossing succeed. He believes border controls have inadvertently contributed to the ferocity of the cartel wars on the Mexican side – an insurgency that has killed 50,000 over the past four years.

The mom-and-pop “coyote” operations that once ran migrants across the border have been pushed out replaced by sophisticated operations that pay dues to the cartels for crossing their territory. Costs of a cross-border transport have risen $2,500, a ten-fold increase in a decade.

“More agents has led to more coyotes, and it’s a more lucrative and complex business,” says Fitzgerald. “The gangs are not directly involved in people-smuggling, but they’re paid for the rights to cross their territory. Along the Gulf Coast, the Zetas have been preying on Central American migrants.”

But in Mexico’s rural towns, young men watch reports on TV of the violence in Ciudad Juarez and Monterrey and share anecdotes of migrants going missing with only their luggage ever turning up or of being Tasered by border control on the US side.

At Jalisco, traditionally one of the main sending states, the effects of border issues are keenly felt. Families are split when parents who lack papers are separated from their US-born children. Instead of being repatriated, apprehended migrants are subjected to periods of detention; penalties for overstaying on migrant worker visas have increased with longer periods of disbarment. Temporary work visas, while more plentiful, are also expensive to apply for.

With remaining migrants struggling for employment in the US, they’re less likely to be able to raise the steep fees to bring friends and family over. In Jalisco, that lack of opportunity has also given gangs opportunity for Mafia-style loan sharking and protection rackets tied to the state’s rival gangs, Los Nueva Generacion and pseudo-religious Knights Templar, which recently proclaimed it would stop the violence for the duration of the pope’s visit.

“The guys want money but they can’t go to America to make it. So then they lend it or demand money for protection, and that causes more problems,” says Castellano. “Perhaps it would be better everyone if they just opened the border.”

But in the current political and economic environment, he admits, that’s unlikely.

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Center for Forced Migration Studies (CFMS) 2012 Summer Institute

Northwestern University’s Center for Forced Migration Studies

2nd Annual Summer Institute - “Settling Resettlement”

July 8th-14th, 2012

The CFMS Summer Institute is a six-day, non-degree earning seminar intended for researchers, policy makers, academics and practitioners working in issues of forced migration, resettlement and humanitarian assistance both within the United States and abroad.

For more information, view website or flyer.

Book Panel Discussion with Zoltan Hajnal, Paul Frymer and Michael Rivera

 

Discussion to be held on Friday, April 20th in ERC 115 at 12:00 pm.

“Why Americans Don’t Join the Party” explores why so many Americans–in particular, Latinos and Asians–fail to develop ties to either major party, why African Americans feel locked into a particular party, and why some white Americans are shut out by ideologically polarized party competition. Through extensive analysis, the authors demonstrate that when the Democratic and Republican parties fail to raise political awareness, to engage deeply held political convictions, or to affirm primary group attachments, nonpartisanship becomes a rationally adaptive response. By developing a model of partisanship that explicitly considers America’s new racial diversity and evolving nonpartisanship, this book provides the Democratic and Republican parties and other political stakeholders with the means and motivation to more fully engage the diverse range of Americans who remain outside the partisan fray.

Zoltan Hajnal is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego.  A scholar of racial and ethnic politics, urban politics, immigration, and political behavior, Dr. Hajnal is the author of Why Americans Don’t Join the Party: Race, Immigration, and the Failure of Political Parties to Engage the Electorate (Princeton 2011), America’s Uneven Democracy: Race, Turnout, and Representation in City Politics (Cambridge 2010) and Changing White Attitudes toward Black Political Leadership (Cambridge 2006) and has published in the American Political Science Review, the Journal of Politics, Public Opinion Quarterly, and numerous other journals, edited volumes, and newspaper editorial pages. Before joining the faculty at UCSD, Dr. Hajnal was a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Brandeis University.  He has received numerous honors for his research and writing including the Best Book and Best Paper in Urban Politics Awards from the American Political Science Association.

Paul Frymer is Associate Professor of Politics at Princeton University.  He writes and teaches on topics in American politics, institutions, law, state theory, and American political development, particularly as they intersect with issues of democratic representation, race and civil rights, and labor and employment rights. In 2010, his book, Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition was re-issued by Princeton University Press with an afterward on the significance of the Obama election. In 2008, Frymer published Black and Blue: African Americans, the Labor Movement, and the Decline of the Democratic Party, also with Princeton University Press.

Michael Rivera is a current graduate student in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego.  Before moving to San Diego, he studied at the University of California, Davis where he received a B.A. in Political Science and Spanish. His current research interests include state immigration policy, American voter behavior and race/ethnic politics.

Race and Immigration Policy in the Americas

April 11, 6-8pm
The New School
Orientation Room, 2 W 13th St (at Fifth Ave)

A Panel Discussion with:
David FitzGerald, UC San Diego
Victoria Hattam, The New School
Adam McKeown, Columbia University

Understandings of immigration policy have all too often been limited by national blinders that fail to understand the full weight of interactions across borders. Domestic class conflict is a necessary but insufficient explanation for patterns of ethnic selection. Policies often converged in ways that inward-looking perspectives on ideologies of nation-building cannot fully explain. While racism had an important causal role to play in the development of immigration policies, the critical race perspective struggles to explain why racialized polities that were the norm throughout the Americas have been replaced by laws that are explicitly anti-racist and which in North America have yielded highly diverse immigration flows. The argument that liberal democracies are inherently incompatible with ethnic selection does not hold water when explaining the onset of these policies or their demise. This project disentangles the different mechanisms of policy diffusion in their interaction with domestic factors. Most surprisingly, in the light of the consensus that norms flow from the strong to the weak, this study shows how weak countries working in concert can create new international norms in ways that literally reshape nation- states. Decolonization and geopolitics were the critical drivers for ending policies of racial and other ethnic discrimination in immigration law.

International Center for Migration, Ethnicity, and Citizenship
6 East 16th Street, 9th floor
New York, NY 10003
Telephone: 212.229.5399
Email: icmec@newschool.edu

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Life as an Undocumented Immigrant

CCIS graduate student researchers David Keyes and Angela S. García comment on their report, “Life as an Undocumented Immigrant: How Restrictive Local Immigration Policies Affect Daily Life,” in U-T San Diego, La Opinión, NBC San Diego, and Univision San Diego.

Read full U-T San Diego article »

Read full La Opinión article »

Watch NBC San Diego interview »

Watch Univision San Diego interview »