Mexicans hope immigration reform can reunite their families and ease the path to prosperity

May 13, 2009

A people divided; Mexican families separated by the border hope Bush and Fox agree on a plan to reunite loved ones
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Sunday, September 2, 2001

SANTA BARBARA, Guanajuato, Mexico — Simple concrete homes surrounded by sorghum fields make up this town of about 2,000 in central Mexico. Chickens and dogs roam, and farmers rely on donkeys and bicycles to transport their crops.

But peek inside the home of Josefina Arriola Martinez, and the drab images yield to signs of prosperity.

Her house is filled with new furniture, a color TV and a stereo with speakers almost as tall as she is. It was bought with money sent by her four children in Fort Worth, all undocumented workers. Another son mails money from North Carolina.

Santa Barbara is dotted with households like this: Third-World simple on the outside, middle-class American on the inside.

The wages sent home from the United States have improved the standard of living, but the quest for economic success has altered the fabric of the town. Most of the men and many of the young women are gone, and some haven’t been home for years.

The family members who still live in Santa Barbara hope that this week’s U.S.-Mexico summit leads to an agreement that will allow their loved ones to come home without having to sneak across a harsh desert, dodging bandits and the U.S. Border Patrol in a return to the United States.

About 3 million Mexicans living and working illegally in the United States are anxious to see whether the talks between President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox will produce an agreement that will “regularize” them and make their stay legal.

Headed North

Higher wages in the United States have drawn Mexican workers for so long that some say a journey north has become a rite of passage for young men.

More people leave Guanajuato than any Mexican state except its western neighbor Jalisco. About 80 percent of those who leave head for Texas and California, according to Mexican officials.

The state of Guanajuato estimates that its citizens living in the United States send home about $400 million a year.

A regularization of undocumented workers would be a blessing for people like Martinez, who have not seen most of their children for years.

She bustles around the house to collect photos of her family and proudly shows off the bounty of their hard work.

“Almost everything here is from there,” Martinez said.

But her pride turns to sorrow when she shows a photo of her 17-year-old son, Salvador Hernandez, and tells how his first attempt to cross the border failed. Hernandez was detained for eight days by Mexican police before they released him.

Hernandez made it to Fort Worth about six months ago and probably won’t return home anytime soon – unless his stay in the United States becomes legal.

“He left me, and he was young,” Martinez said while wiping away tears.

Some of her other children have not been home for years. Ten of her 11 grandchildren live in the United States, and she hasn’t met most of them.

“We want to see them, but we can’t,” Martinez said, explaining that her children cannot come home without paying an expensive smuggler or “coyote” for a dangerous trip back across the border to their jobs.

Guadalupe Hernandez Garcia is the elected leader, or “judge,” of Santa Barbara. There are supposed to be two judges, but the other one also “went for the north.” All four of Garcia’s sons have left.

Although the Mexican government is trying to stop the hemorrhaging of its most ambitious and hard-working citizens, Garcia still sees emigration as a boon to Santa Barbara.

“They’re helping in respect to economics,” he said.

As he spoke, Garcia held a small sickle and stood among his rows of sorghum. He said field workers make about $8 a day, and that’s only when the crops are in season.

Benefits of being legal

Hernandez and thousands of other Mexicans in North Texas hope that Bush and Fox agree on something similar to a 1986 amnesty that granted legal residency to 2.7 million immigrants.

Jose Antonio Gutierrez, a Fort Worth truck driver, is a good example of how becoming a legal resident can dramatically improve an immigrant’s life.

Gutierrez said the 1986 amnesty was the best thing to happen to him since he emerged, shivering, from the Rio Grande in 1984, at age 14.

Gutierrez worked in four states as an illegal farm hand until he won amnesty.

Amnesty meant that he could get a Social Security number, open a bank account, get a driver’s license and apply for better jobs. And he can return to Mexico whenever he wants without having to pay a smuggler or worry about the U.S. Border Patrol.

“I felt free,” Gutierrez said. “I could go anywhere without fear of anything.”

That’s the kind of freedom undocumented workers like Hernandez dream about.

They’re free to return to Mexico, but not free to come back to the United States. Recent immigrants who crossed the border with a coyote said it cost about $1,500.

It’s also dangerous.

Fourteen Mexicans died in May in a disastrous attempt to cross the Arizona desert. One undocumented worker who milks cows in North Texas said he was out of food and almost out of water by the time he completed the walk of three days and two nights to reach a pickup point.

Another factor is the Border Patrol. The federal agents are not aggressive toward immigrants; they carry first aid kits to help those who are in need. But being sent back by the Border Patrol delays immigrants’ return to the United States and may force them to pay another smuggler’s fee. Even if they succeed on their next attempt, they could lose their job for being late.

Economic incentive

Mexican officials are trying to spur the economy to get more people to stay. But economic data and immigrants’ stories illustrate how hard it is to compete with the lure of jobs in the richest country in the world.

The business-friendly programs that Fox started when he was governor of Guanajuato are starting to take shape on the national level.

States like Chiapas and Jalisco are copying Guanajuato’s export-promoting agency known by its Spanish acronym as COFOCE.

Carlos Monroy, COFOCE’s export promotion director, said the number of companies exporting from Guanajuato has increased from 300 to 1,000 since COFOCE’s founding in 1992, making the state Mexico’s export leader.

“Companies related to exporting pay 10 to 30 percent more than those companies that don’t export,” Monroy said.

Guanajuato has also awarded low-interest loans to some of the smallest businesses and poorest people. Enrique Castro Villalobos, director of the state’s loan agency, said that 300,000,000 pesos of credit has been extended since the agency was founded five years ago. It has helped farmers restructure their debt and helped women start small businesses.

Jose Natera, the Mexican government’s director of international projects, said the Fox administration is aggressively promoting Mexican businesses, especially exports.

Mexican Trade Centers aimed at boosting Mexican exports are opening in major American cities, and a hot line for people seeking work in Mexico has been set up, Natera said.

But the economic efforts haven’t stemmed the exodus to the north.

Increasing immigration

Mexico’s gross domestic product has increased more than 40 times since 1960, to $574 billion, according to the World Bank.

But that hasn’t slowed emigration. In the same 30-year period, emigration has increased more than tenfold, according to a recent Mexican government report.

Guanajuato officials said that despite increased jobs and campaigns encouraging people to stay, many Mexican men feel that they must emigrate to the United States to prove their manhood.

“If you’re not going to cross the border, you’re not a man,” said Samuel Alcocer Flores, head of a committee coordinating the state’s emigration projects.

Mexicans have been emigrating to the United States for so long that it’s no longer just an economic issue; it has become part of the culture, said state Population Secretary Dr. Luis Fernando Macias Garcia.

“To go north is to pass one of the tests of life,” he said. “They go because they have to, because their father went, their grandfather went.”

Although the men send home money, they leave a void in their communities and homes that hurts women and children, said Guanajuato social worker Laura Montez de Oca.

“Many times the man tells the woman he will go, but he tells her the day before, ‘Tomorrow I leave,’ ” Montez said.

The sudden exit is a blow to the women’s self-esteem, Montez said, and it is followed by more hardship. They must manage their husbands’ property, but often cannot make any decisions without consulting with him first – even though they may not hear from him for months or years.

Sitting with some of his siblings at his sister’s house in Fort Worth, Hernandez said he knew that it worried his mother when he left Santa Barbara, but he felt he had to go “to have a better life.”

“It’s sad, but the people have to work to support the family,” he said.

He works about 60 hours a week for a contractor and said he hopes Bush and Fox can agree on something that will allow him to go home.

“I wanted to make a little bit of money and return,” he said. “There’s a lot of money to be earned here.”