There has long been significant migration from Mexico to the US . However it has been increasing, especially in the last 10 years and has now become massive. And 85% of the new arrivals are undocumented. In fact, of the 11.2 million persons of Mexican birth now living in the US , 53% are here illegally. [Leigh Binford, “A Generation of Migrants,” NACLA Report on the Americas , Vol. 39, No. 1 (July-August 2005).]
They come not only from Mexico , but from Central America and other countries further south, as well as many other countries elsewhere. But the largest migration is now from Latin America . In fact, Hispanics now have surpassed African Americans as the largest minority group in the US . It is projected that in five years 13% of the population will be foreign born. Add to that the first generation born here but still culturally rooted to the country of origin of their parents and you can see we’re talking about a sizable minority indeed.
Why do they come? We sometimes flatter ourselves and think they come for freedom. Recall the words on the Statue of Liberty: “Give us your tired, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” But today the reality is very different. Simply put, they come looking for work. They are economic, not political immigrants. Historically Mexican immigrants worked mainly in agriculture in states like Texas , California and Illinois . Now they are just as likely to be working in private households, in hotels and restaurants, and in construction. [David Bacon, “How U.S. Corporations Won the Debate Over Immigration,” Americas Program, Interhemispheric Resource Center , November 16, 2004 http://www.americaspolicy.org/articles/2004/0411corpimm.html ] And they work in most states across the country, from Washington state to Washington DC , from North Carolina to south Baltimore . You can hear Spanish spoken right here on campus at the construction site for Morgan’s new library.
Interestingly, there is some migration in the reverse direction. There are some persons of US birth who go to Mexico, not just as tourists, but to live. I am a part of this reverse migration. After retiring from teaching at Morgan, last year my wife and I moved to San Miguel de Allende. We joined a community of about 5000 North Americans who now live in this colonial era city in the highlands of central Mexico. There are other cities with similar growing concentrations of norteamericanos, most of them retirees like myself. Altogether it is estimated there are a half million persons of foreign birth living in Mexico, 63% of them from the US . [Francisco Alba, “ Mexico : A Crucial Crossroads,” Migration Policy Institute, March 2004 http://www.migrationinformation.org ]
In general, we are very well received. My wife and I live in a poor Mexican neighborhood and have been welcomed into the community. Our neighbors go out of their way to help us, to include us in local activities, to extend the hand of friendship. That is very different from the experience they have often had when they come to the US . They are good neighbors. Many in the US are not.
That is because as we cross the border between the two nations, we fly, while many of them walk. They walk because they are poor and entering illegally. We fly because we have visas and money. And with the money we bring, the social security and pension checks we receive, we contribute to their economy. We employ hard working Mexicans to construct our houses, to work in our houses, and to wait on us in the restaurants where we eat. And more importantly we try to be respectful of Mexicans and their culture and to assist as best we can in the improvement of their community. There are exceptions to this, of course. There are the wealthy Texans who build million dollar houses, drive their big SUVs on the narrow cobblestone streets, and live in arrogant aloofness from Mexican society. But Mexicans are surprisingly tolerant even of these ugly Americans.
How different this is from our reception of Mexican immigrants here in the US . They are culturally scorned, taken advantage of, slotted into the lowest paying jobs, and then attacked for taking jobs from Americans. They are met at the border by armed vigilantes seeking to keep them out and rounded up by Homeland Security agents to be sent back. And yet they keep coming, legally or illegally. They hire coyotes to guide them across the border, paying them up to $7,000 for this dangerous trek. They walk through the barren deserts of our southwest and ride in sealed trucks, sometimes left to die in the stiffling heat of the middle passage of their Diaspora. It is known that many will not make it and their anxious families back in Mexico await worriedly for word from their migrating loved ones.
We know some of their families. They grieve for their dead. But in spite of it, thousands more try to make it across. Just recently a young neighbor told my wife about her 17 year old cousin who died in the desert. Apparently he did not carry enough water with him. While in the desert he encountered the vigilantes. He tried to run and kept running until he collapsed dead. He was picked up and his young body was sent back to his mother. Apparently she was depending on the money he hoped to send to her. Now she despairs. She is drinking and selling herself, sometimes she shines shoes outside of the church while her younger children run the streets of Pancho Villa, a particularly rough neighborhood near us.
Looked at from the point of view of the North, these migrants are often viewed as invading aliens. I want to show you a different view. I want to look at them from the vantage point of the global South where I now live. I suggest that we should see migrants as human beings, with families, deeply attached to communities, proud of their culture, dreaming of a decent future, but facing desperate economic conditions that give them no alternative but to go to El Norte to work. First some historical background.
For generations the vast majority of the people of Mexico made their living on the land. Tilling their milpas, they grew the corn and beans that were the staple of their diet. It was hard work and did not produce great prosperity, but it was the basis of a way of life that was prized. Up to the 1960s, this small-scale subsistence agriculture made Mexico as a nation basically food self-sufficient. Various government programs and the constitutional protection of traditional communal lands, called ejidos, supported the structure of rural life. Article 27 of the 1917 constitution ensured the collective ownership of these lands (about half of all the arable land in the country) by local communities. The right to cultivate the land could be assigned to individuals, but ejido land could not become private property nor sold. Article 27 was one of the key achievements that came out of the Revolution of 1910.
Alongside this peasant agriculture, a development of industry was also taking place. Based on the wealth of the country’s vast oil resources, which had been nationalized from Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company in the 1930’s, the governments of Mexico promoted industry that produced consumer goods that had previously been imported. This import substitution industrialization (ISI), as it is called, gradually built the foundations for a modern economy. Along with that the state sought to ensure social benefits to sectors of the population to undergird their well-being and maintain political stability.
All of this was to change as Mexico was subjected to the economic and political forces of globalization. Two key turning points were the debt crisis of 1982 and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994. The debt crisis provided the opportunity for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to collude with a technocratic faction within the Mexican state headed by Carlos Salinas to turn the economy away from ISI to export oriented industrialization (EOI) so as to be able to generate the foreign exchange needed to service the debt owed to US and European banks. Along with this came the whole package of neo-liberal policies: privatization of state held sectors of the economy, shrinking of social programs in the name of fiscal austerity, opening up the country to foreign direct investment (FDI), particularly in the maquiladoras, which were basically off shore assembly plants for the US economy. This also included a shift from small scale campesino agriculture to large scale commercial agriculture oriented to export.
This globalization of the economy by a globalizing political elite that has controlled the state since the early 1980’s was consolidated in NAFTA, which went into effect January 1, 1994 . By joining Mexico with the US and Canada in a single free trade zone, the political elite hailed NAFTA as signaling Mexico’s entry into the First World. One of the key requirements for admission however, was changing Article 27 of the constitution. Now the communal ejido land could be privatized and sold, allowing for consolidation of land into large commercial agriculture.
The disruptive effects of this neo-liberal globalization of Mexico ’s economy was immediately appearant to Mexico ’s campesinos. NAFTA was greeted by an armed rebellion in the southernmost state of Chiapis. Rallying poor indigenous communities in the name of Emilio Zapata, legendary leader of the 1910 Revolution, the Zapatistas attacked neo-liberalism for destroying any hope for land, liberty and justice. The standoff between the Zapatistas and the political elite continues to this day, as they point out how government policies are again creating the conditions in the countryside that produced a revolution nearly a century ago.
This conflict also underscores the racism that lies beneath the surface in Mexican society. Although officially a mestizo nation, Mexico ’s political elite is decidedly white. And the vast majority of the campesinos live in unassimilated indigenous communities. This racial division is a remnant of the Spanish conquest of Mexico 500 years ago. The elite’s modernization policies can be seen as an effort to complete the conquest by destroying the basis of the indigenous communities. To join the First World requires the destruction of campesino life. In their vision, a modern Mexico is to be a land without peasants.
This is the larger picture that has set the stage for the massive, growing migration to the US . The withdrawal of state support for small scale agriculture, the importation of cheap, subsidized corn from the US, the removal of social supports, the devaluation of the peso have all conspired to force campesinos off the land or make it impossible for them to support themselves any longer. The growth sector of the economy has been the export oriented maquiladora industries, first located along the border but now spread throughout the country. However they have generated relatively little employment when compared to the number of new entrants to the labor force. Consequently the main growth in employment has been in the informal sector with its casual and typically low income work. Realistically, unemployment is estimated at near 40%, with no unemployment benefits. [Deborah White, “Illegal Immigration Explained – Profits & Poverty, Social Security & Starvation,” from Your Guide to Liberal Politics, http://www.usliberals.about.com/od/immigrantion/a/Illegalimmi_p.htm ] With the weakening of unions, real wages have declined by almost 50% and the legal minimum wage by 1998 stood at only 29% of what it had been in 1980. All these economic forces have resulted in an astonishing povery rate. By 1996, 73.32% of Mexican households were in poverty or extreme poverty! [Enrique Dussel Peters, Polarizing Mexico : The Impact of Liberalization Strategy , Lynne Rienner, p. 207.] At the same time a few have gotten very rich. In fact, Mexico has more billionaires for its population than any other country except the US , Germany , and Japan . Neo-liberal globalization has made a few unbelievably rich but most Mexicans unnecessarily poor.
These are the conditions that have dislocated millions of people, pushing them to El Norte. The border between Mexico and the US is the only place on the globe where a Third World country borders a First World country. By crossing that political and economic divide, Mexican workers can make enough to support themselves and still send money home to their families to keep them from starving, even when receiving low wages by US standards, often wages below the legal minimum.
The immigrants from Mexico (as well as Central America ) are not alien invaders. They are victims of globalization and government policies undertaken at the behest of the US . And as citizens of the US , we have a responsibility for their plight.
Most of those who go to El Norte to work are young men. They leave their parents and siblings, they leave their wives and children, to make the dangerous trek across the border. You can see small villages around my new home town where there are only women, children and the elderly left. The young men have all had to leave. They used to be able to return periodically for family visits, particularly around holiday time. But now with the tightening of border security, it has become more difficult to return to the US . And so a pattern of circular migration is giving way to long term or even permanent migration. And the men now often try to bring their wives and children to join them. Others have simply remarried and started new families. The governor of my state of Guanajuato estimates that nearly a third of the population of the state now lives in the US . And the governor of the neighboring state of Michoacan says over a third of his citizens live in El Norte. [Sandra Dibble, “Two Mexican Governors Find Bush Plan Lacking,” San Diego Union-Tribune, January 23, 2004, http://mexicanlawclasses.unm.edu/about/immigration.htm ] These have been traditional “sending” states. But now, especially since the 1994 devaluation of the peso, massive emigration has spread to most other parts of Mexico as well, particularly the southern states of Oaxaca , Guerrero , Puebla and Chiapas with their large indigenous populations.
The impact of this migration on family and community life is profound. Let me illustrate with a few examples. In my neighborhood, there is a small store operated by a young woman named Carmen. We seldom went there because her shelves were largely bare. Then last Christmas her husband returned from working in the States. He brought enough money to stock the shelves and now it is a thriving business. But during his long absence, Carmen had learned to be independent. This raises new questions. Who should manage the family money? Is what the store brings in her money or his? Now their gender roles are being renegotiated. They are not likely to revert to the traditional pattern.
Or another example. My wife teaches English in the local community center. Her classes are filled with children eager to learn to speak the language. Why such interest in English? They are preparing to go to El Norte where they can hope to have a future. Socialization patterns are changing as youth prepare to leave home in a society where traditionally they had never gone far from their family of origin. Now they expect to live far away in a strange land that speaks a foreign language and has very different customs. Youth are now being socialized for the Diaspora.
58% of Mexican immigrants in the US have left their spouses behind. 24% have spouses in the US . [Eduardo Porter & Elisabeth Malkin, “Mexicans at Home Abroad,” New York Times, August 4, 2005 .] The sometimes tragic impact of migration is illustrated by the case of Jose and his wife Maria. They live on the outskirts of San Miguel de Allende with their six children. But he spent half their married life in El Norte. He sent a remittance when he could from the $120 he received each week from driving a tractor in Texas . Maria struggled to raise the kids, four of whom died. She worked any kind of job she could: maid, cook, she sold tunas in the street. She almost never saw her husband in most of their 18 years. He came across the river to spend a few weeks with his family and left another baby on the way. Now after 18 years they have completed their humble house. He now is back, but they remain just as poor as they were when he left. It’s hard to imagine the frustration Jose must feel. She also suffered his infidelity while he was gone. He confessed it, but she never forgot. This has put a big distance in their relationship and is reflected in their very premature aging and also in his new hobby: “alcohol.”
Once emigrants leave, one of the important connections they have with family and community is through the remittances they send back. Around this time of year as the holidays approach, in San Miguel de Allende we will be seeing long lines of people waiting outside the Western Union office to cash the money orders their loved ones will be sending home. This money will not be spent on a flood of presents. The children are likely to receive one simple toy for Christmas. Most of the money will go for food, or to buy a door to put on the house, or to pay school fees and buy books and uniforms so the children can go beyond the ninth grade.
These remittances sent by migrants have become a major factor in the Mexican economy. Last year the Bank of Mexico estimated that they totaled $16.6 billion! That exceeds the foreign exchange Mexico receives from tourism or from oil or from foreign direct investment. It is the people of Mexico who are the big investors in their country. All of that comes from those little brown people you see working hard on construction sites here at Morgan or cooking and washing dishes in restaurants or making beds in hotels or cleaning chickens in the poultry factories on Maryland’s Eastern Shore or picking the fruits and vegetables in Florida and California that we buy in our supermarkets. We have come to depend on their labor just as have their families.
If immigrant’s ties to family are strong, so too are ties to community. In locales across the US , you are likely to find immigrants from the same region or even the same town in Mexico . That is because earlier arrivals have sent word back to friends and relatives about available jobs. They may even loan the money needed to pay a coyote to take them through the Middle Passage. As these groups of “home boys” gather this side of the border, they often form hometown associations. Continuing to feel a strong attachment to the communities they had to leave behind, they will pool their earnings and send them back to finance civil projects: dig a well, build a soccer stadium, buy an ambulance, equip a kitchen in the local school. It is estimated there are now a thousand hometown associations across the US with links to every part of Mexico . In some cases their civic minded generosity has even shamed corrupt local governments that have long neglected rural communities to finally pave a road or make other improvements themselves. [Jonathan Fox & Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, “Building Civil Society Among Indigenous Migrants,: Americas Program, Interhemispheric Resource Center , October 12, 2004 http://www.americaspolicy.org/reports/2004/0410migrants.html ]
Let me emphasize that the economic forces that have so disrupted Mexican society are not just the result of corrupt government, although there is plenty of that too. It is the result of the globalization of Mexico , the result of its attachment to the US economy as a dependent appendage at the behest of US political leaders and the corporations they serve. Mexico ’s “bad government” is simply that of a globalizing elite more intent on serving the interests of transnational capital than its own nation.
Meanwhile, north of the border, the U.S. consumer economy depends on low wage immigrant labor from Mexico and Central America as well as cheap, labor intensive goods imported from those low wage areas. What keeps the wages of immigrants low is not only the large supply of workers desperate for work, but also the fact that many of them are illegal and thus highly vulnerable and unable to make demands on their employers. This brings into focus one of the important functions of a territorial border such as that between the U.S. and Mexico: by limiting the mobility of labor at the same time that capital enjoys high mobility, wage levels are kept low on both sides of the divide that the two states enforce. The territories controlled by states might thus be thought of as “population containment zones”, to use an apt phrase of sociologist Philip McMichael. This has led one analyst to comment, “the nation-state system boxes in and controls populations within fixed physical (territorial) boundaries so that their labor can be more efficiently exploited and their resistance contained.” [William I. Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004, p. 106.] Here we can see how a system of multiple territorial states can serve to maintain the inequalities between nations that is essential to the continued combined and unequal development of global capitalism.
One might well wonder what would happen if the safety valve of migration were not available to the Mexican campesinos? Early in the 20 th century similar dire conditions in the campo gave rise to a major peasant revolution. Now migration and the dollars that come home from it have given campesinos another option, another way to survive. Without it, the countryside could explode once again. Migration has been a major factor in political stability, insulating the Mexican elite from the consequences of their service to transnational capital. And how about other, more distant regions of the global South where the migration option is not so readily available? As those societies are more closely drawn into the global net of capital, their national economies are undermined, and their states globalized, might their elites be confronted by new revolutionary forces? Those nativists in the U. S. who want to end migration should be careful –they might get what they wish … and along with it some unexpected consequences.
In Mexican-US migration we can see concentrated in a microcosm many of the problems sweeping through other parts of the world. The 11 million Mexicans living in the US may seem immense, but it fades in comparison with the 35 million Chinese or the 20 million Indians living outside their countries. The executive director of the Global Commission on International Migration expects that by 2015 there will be a billion people on the move globally. The gap in global living standards is widening. The per capita income in the First World has increased since 1975 from 41 times to 66 times that in the Third World . Migrants are flowing across borders in pursuit of wages 20 to 30 times what they could hope to earn at home. This is indeed a complex global phenomenon that we need to understand better and figure out more effective ways to cope with.
Some facts and figures about Remittances from the U.S. to Mexico
Mexico’s foreign exchange earnings ($USD million), by sector of origins
Source: Bank of Mexico’s Annual Report for 2001; INEGI, Economic Indicators, 2001, Cited in Mexico in Transition, Gerardo Otero, ed. p. 145.
Bank of Mexico estimates 2004 remittances totaled $16.6 billion dollars, up 24% over 2003. 400,000 Mexicans go to the US each year. There are now 10 million Mexican-born persons living in US, over half are undocumented. Of the 8 to 10 million undocumented immigrants in the US, 1.2 million work in agriculture, 1 million + work in restaurants, 500,000+ work in construction, and nearly as many in private households.
“In Mexico, the federal government’s National Employment Survey (ENE) shows a labor force of 43.6 million, of whom 15.4 million (36.5%) are covered by labor regulations and eligible for federal health, housing and retirement benefits.” Of the 7 million agricultural workers, 400,000 are covered by Social Security. Of the 9 million workers in large firms (over 100 employees), 8 million are covered.
Source: Fred Rosen, “From Mexico to New York Labor Joins the Struggle”, NACLA Report on the Americas May/June 2005, pp. 8-11.
For Latin America as a whole, remittances total $38 billion, exceeding direct foreign investment and governmental aid combined. 50 million people receive 50 to 80% of their average income from remittances.
Source: Richard Lapper, “Latin Americans Scale Summit of Remittance League” Financial Times, March 26, 2004.