Mexican view of US immigration: why Antonio Romero hasn't left yet

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Antonio Romero sets down the hand lawn mower and a broom he has been carrying over his shoulder, and pauses on a side street in a middle-class, suburban neighborhood just north of where he works as a gardener.

He explains why he has not joined some of his friends in going to the United States illegally to look for work -- at least so far.

''Some of my friends (who went to the US and returned) said they found no work. Others did.''

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''Here it is more peaceful than going further (north).''

He says he does not want to be too far from his wife and family, whom he visits in the countryside about 150 miles north of here every week or two.

Some analysts here think Mexico is the winner and the US the loser in Mr. Romero's decision to stay here.

This is not the prevailing view in the US, where there is particular concern about the presence of undocumented Mexicans at a time of high unemployment.

But Mexican analysts think the US may need a continuing flow of aliens -- legal or otherwise:

* A declining number of Americans are engaged in low-prestige manual labor, even though the need for such labor is not diminishing. In fact, says a Mexican Department of Labor analyst, the demand for such labor in the US may increase as the number of elderly -- who may require more service workers - also rises.

* Many industries, primarily in the Southwest, and many agricultural operations depend on the inexpensive labor of the undocumented Mexican worker. Analysts argue that most undocumented workers prop up industries that would fold without them.

And aliens often provide the domestic help that enables many US women to hold full-time professional positions.

On the other hand, these same analysts point out that it may be in Mexico's best interest to hang onto these would-be emigrants. The popular image notwithstanding, a study here has found that Mexico's undocumented workers are typically not the poorest of the poor. They often have at least low-paying jobs, and sometimes skills.

Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo has said publicly the nation needs the skilled and semiskilled workers being attracted to the US.

Mexico is beginning to experience some labor shortages not only in skilled trades, such as welding, but in unskilled construction, fishing, and to a lesser extent even in the restaurant industry, says Jorge Bustamante, a sociologist at the Colegio de Mexico.

For years Mexico could afford to ignore rural development, using the US as an ''escape valve'' for rural unemployment, says Dr. Bustamante. Now, with new oil wealth and a fast-growing economy, Mexico can afford to control the flow of undocumented workers better.

But other experts here stress a need for more Mexican attention to rural development and even more efforts in tackling unemployment and underdemployment here.

Even the money sent back to Mexico by undocumented workers may not be as important as believed earlier.

Juan Diez Canedo, economist at the Bank of Mexico, studied a sample of 240, 000 checks and money orders mailed from the US to Mexico and estimated only $300 million is sent back each year by undocumented workers. An earlier estimate had been $2 billion.

Mexico's current unemployment has risen to about 5 percent, according to the Mexican Department of Labor. But unemployment and low wages -- even by local standards -- remain serious problems. More women are looking for work, too. As in the US, there are unskilled workers going jobless, and unskilled jobs going unfilled.

Like so many Mexicans pouring into the capital, Antonio Romero found work, though he earns only ''a little more'' than in the countryside.

Here he pays $60 a month for a very small room with a leaky roof, no electricity, no running water. In his small countryside home there is no electricity either, and water comes from a well. But his house is paid for: It is his.

From here it is impossible to verify what he has heard about the US, including stories of crime. But what he has heard may not deter him from going after all. He may again shoulder his lawn mower and broom.

Nearby, a middle-class family has had no response to an announcement in their window that they are seeking a maid. And behind their house is a lawn mower belonging to their former gardener who left it there four years ago. He said he was going to the US.

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