With the U.S. economy contracting rapidly, Mexican migrants are heading back south. But they're finding the homecoming isn't quite what they imagined.
- By Malcolm BeithMalcolm Beith is a freelance journalist and the author of two books on the Mexican drug war, The Last Narco and Hasta El Último Día.
Every Saturday for nearly four years, Elena Trujillo has gone to the local department store in Morelia, Michoacn, to pick up money wired home by her 34-year-old son, ngel. This 59-year-old mother of three is one of between 16 and 35 million Mexicans who depend on remittances from relatives in the United States to boost their incomes. But in late September — for Trujillo and for countless others — the wire transfers stopped coming. Confused at first, Trujillo was reassured by ngel on the phone: Everything is OK; I have a surprise for you. The next week, Trujillo received another transfer, this one much larger than normal. She was ecstatic. ngel’s construction work must finally be paying dividends, she thought.Then, just a few days later, ngel came back to Michoacn.I couldn’t believe it. He had given up and come home, Trujillo said. He had given up on the American Dream.
Angel Trujillo is just one of as many as 3 million Mexicans who some experts and officials predict will return home from the United States in the coming months. The economic crisis in the United States is already hitting migrant workers, many of whom work in tanking industries such as construction and manufacturing. Unemployment among Mexican immigrants was 9.7 percent in January, up from 4.5 percent in March of last year, and higher than the 7.6 percent for the United States overall, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Not surprisingly, remittances from the United States are also falling for the first time in the 13 years that officials have kept figures on record. In 2008, transfers dropped $1 billion compared with year before, and economists say that the effects of the recession are only beginning to be felt.
Mexico’s central bank announced in late January that 20,000 of the migrants who returned for Christmas won’t go back to the United States. Officials in Mexican states such as Michoacn, Puebla, and Zacatecas, which send some of the largest numbers of migrants north each year, are predicting a mass return as more migrants give up on the land of opportunity. Fewer migrants than ever are leaving Mexico, too, according to the Mexican government, with the emigration rate dropping 46 percent since 2006.
Local and federal governments have made it clear that returning migrants are more than welcome (officials even hand out information pamphlets entitled Bienvenido, paisano — Welcome, countryman — to help the returnees). But the realities of Mexico’s economy will likely leave some doors shut.
Having fallen behind by 200,000 on a promise to create two to four times that number of new jobs by this past December, the government of President Felipe Caldern is not well placed to accept an influx of once emigrants. Mexico’s economy secretary said earlier this month that zero formal jobs would be created this year. Although the Caldern administration is investing heavily in infrastructure, the jobs created will only be temporary. Local governments, like that of Michoacn, are appealing for federal subsidies to help spur growth of sectors such as agriculture and generate more jobs. They also want federal funding to help returnees set up small businesses. But officials throughout Mexico acknowledge how difficult it will be to absorb those who once left.Some experts and Mexican columnists warn that if the massive southbound flood of migrants does occur in the coming months, resentment could boil to the surface.
Jose Mendez Lopez, a 46-year-old Morelia resident who heads a construction team, is just one employer who will welcome returnees — but will still give preference to those he knows.Unemployment is already rife in states such as Michoacn, even before an influx of returnees. And because of the experience many ex-migrants have gained in the U.S. construction industry, Mendez says, they often ask for higher pay than local workers. He can only offer about $10 a day, a standard wage for a Mexican construction worker.If push comes to shove, Mendez will hire the people he knows. But, he says, I prefer my team who has been here all along. They didn’t quit on Mexico.
Returning to a land left behind poses challenges for returning migrants. In a city like Morelia, where many locals still wear traditional indigenous dress and some even wear cowboy hats, a Mexican who has lived in the United States can be spotted a mile away. The returnees wear clothes from stores like Urban Outfitters (and not the knockoff versions that are popular among ordinary Mexicans), sport new sneakers, and don baseball caps of U.S. teams (again, not the fakes). They’ll shun straws that aren’t pre-wrapped, and according to some local policemen, they are clueless about the code — in other words, when to pay a bribe in order to avoid the laborious process of paying a traffic ticket.
Despite the barrage of returns late in 2008, the jury is still out over whether the predicted mass exodus from the United States will occur — and when. Most Mexican officials, for example, are now dialing back their predictions to about one million returnees — still a big wave coming. If the U.S. economy does go completely south, Mexico and Central America will still look worse by comparison. Migrants, advocates, and experts agree: There will be ups and downs [in the flow of migrants heading north], says Martha Luz Rojas, an immigration expert at the Colegio de la Frontera Sur, located near Mexico’s southern border. But where else are migrants going to go — Europe?
And even if the pull factors drawing immigrants to the United States decline, many still expect that push effects could overpower its stalling economy. Drug violence is consuming parts of Mexico — an escalating phenomenon that could spur more emigration in spite of the risks faced by migrants navigating a terrain that is increasingly controlled by Mexico’s organized criminal gangs.
Back in Mexico for more than two months now, ngel Trujillo is vowing to stick it out in Michoacn, even though he won’t be able to send his mother a few hundred dollars a week anymore. Instead, he’ll help her rebuild her home and work in construction in Morelia and its environs when he can. He’s working on picking up the local accent and slang again and trying to integrate himself into the community — if only to help him get a job in construction that suits his qualifications.This is my country, he says. I’m sure I’ll get used to it.
Others, such as Juana Patio, an engineering consultant who has been working in Houston for 10 years, aren’t so attached. She came back this past holiday season to sniff out opportunities in Mexico for a qualified professional like herself. She was disappointed to find that the pay is either too low or the possibility of advancement nearly nonexistent. So Patio is returning to her adopted home.I don’t really like living there, but I’m going back, she says. There are always more opportunities there.