HUANDACAREO, MEXICO — WITH a sweep of her hand, Rosa Guzman Alvarez gestures beyond the produce displayed on her fruit-and-vegetable stand to the rest of the open-air market in this central Mexican town.
''As you can see, the majority of us are women and children here,'' she says, pointing to other vendors and customers. ''As for the men, they've gone to the other side; they've gone to the United States.''
While her husband works the harvests in Illinois, Rosa keeps up the small business the two of them started together three years ago. It's a common arrangement here in Michoacan, a poor, rural Mexican state that has sent more migrants to the US than has any other region.
Today experts estimate that slightly more Michoacanos harvest strawberries in California, pick apples in Oregon, and work in construction in Illinois - about 2 million - than the 1.9 million adults who still permanently call the state home.
Despite common knowledge that crossing the northern border is becoming more difficult, a grapevine that says jobs in the US are becoming harder for undocumented immigrants to find, and California's anti-immigrant Proposition 187 becoming a household term, the urge to travel north to work is as strong as ever.
''It took my husband a month and four tries before he finally got across, but he kept trying because he didn't have a choice,'' says Rosa. ''When you're from Michoacan, you know it's pretty much the only way to survive or ever think of getting ahead.''
Michoacan's long history
Michoacan has been sending immigrants north for decades. People here consider places like Gardena, Calif., or certain streets in Chicago, a part of home. This year Mexico's deep economic recession, which has hit an already weak agricultural sector as hard as any other, has only strengthened what migratory experts call ''the push factor.''
''This is a region that has lived largely from pig farming, but now the rising costs of farming along with falling prices for pork mean a lot of farms are just shutting down,'' says Froylan Ambriz Alvarez, town secretary in Huandacareo.
''Already, before this, a family with money being sent back from the US lived better than the family that depended on the local pig farm.'' he adds. ''But now with rising unemployment, people don't see any alternative but trying their luck up north.''
The Ambriz family's case is not unusual: Of 11 brothers and sisters, seven now live in the US. One brother is a doctor in Watsonville, Calif., while other siblings live in Chicago.
Yet even though Mr. Ambriz estimates that better than two-thirds of the families in town are headed by women whose men have gone north, he says Huandacareo has fared better than some towns in the area.
''We've actually added to our population over recent years, but some towns around here are a fraction of what they used to be.''
One such place is Villa Morelos, a town down the road from Huandacareo that the Spanish founded in 1527. Today Villa Morelos preserves the old town square and architectural lines of colonial Mexico, but it has nothing like the bustle of a typical Mexican town.
''When the boys turn 17 or 18, they go north,'' says the Rev. Adolfo Garduno, the town priest.
Estimates vary widely among state officials, local leaders, and town shopkeepers over just how much population has been lost, but everyone agrees Villa Morelos is not what it once was.
Some locals also say that Mexico's economic crisis hasn't really had that much of an effect on the migration. ''They were going before, and they're still going, so I don't see the difference,'' says Villa Morelos town councilor Octavio Diaz Anguiano.
But recent years have produced some changes in the patterns of migration from Michoacan, state migration researchers and local townspeople agree. First, the US amnesty program that offered legalization to millions of illegal immigrants in the late 1980s, plus the more recent stepped-up policing of the US side of the border, have meant that visits back to Michoacan are less frequent.
''Already last year the visits at Christmas time were off about 30 percent, and I imagine they'll be down more this year,'' says Fr. Adolfo. ''People know it's getting harder to get across, so if they don't have papers they're less likely to take chances.''
And second, the heightened difficulty in crossing, plus the fact that most families here now have relatives established on the US side to take them in, have led more young people to marry and then go north together, with no intentions of moving back. ''We're seeing less of just the man going off for seasonal work,'' adds the priest. ''Families are going north to stay.''
Office helps migrants
Recognizing the important impact immigration has on its people, Michoacan became the first Mexican state in 1992 to establish an office to offer legal and administrative services to migrant workers. The original idea was to help the migrant who had lost important papers in transit or who had suffered a work injury in the US and was back in Mexico for care.
While the office still handles those tasks, officials say their focus has shifted to rights-abuse problems as the mood toward illegal immigrants in the US has toughened and as crossing the border has become riskier.
''We're seeing more beatings and other rights violations of our people with the anti-Mexican turn taken in the US,'' says Jesus Vargas Alejos, director of the migrant services office in Morelia, the state capital.
''The 15 cadavers we've received from the border or the [US] interior this year are already double last year's number.''
Mr. Vargas, nine of whose 11 siblings now live in the US, says part of the increased violence stems from the fact that younger Michoacanos with no crossing experience and more women are going north. And out in the towns, many people say that much of the violence they hear about occurs on the Mexican side of the border.
''We hear about the rights abuses in the US from television, but those who come back haven't been talking about mistreatment,'' Adolfo says. ''I have to say the rapes and robberies I do hear about have been on this side'' of the border.
'Fare' to LA: $1,200
Another hardship for Michoacan's first-time migrants is the rising cost of contracting a pollero, the person paid to guarantee passage across the line. Help getting to a city like Los Angeles used to cost $400, but now costs $1,200 or more.
''That bigger money has drawn new polleros who aren't always as scrupulous as the old-timers,'' says the Villa Morelos priest. ''That's where we get a lot of the robberies and rapes.''
To cut down on the violence and uncertainty Michoacanos face in crossing the border, while guaranteeing California farms the cheap labor he says they will always need, Vargas recommends creating a guest-worker program something like the Bracero program the US had in the 1950s.
But neither the US nor the Mexican government seems eager to go in that direction, Vargas adds. So in the meantime his office is also working with Michoacanos who have settled in the US to encourage them to help create small businesses back home.
With Michoacanos in the US sending home about $1 billion a year, Vargas figures just a small fraction of that could be turned into an important stimulus for development in the state.
More jobs in places like Villa Morelos or Huandacareo would mean less migration north. And as conversations with the town's young people reveal, the youths of Michoacan really want to stay home - if they get the chance.
''Our fathers want us to stay in school, so we have a chance to get a better job here,'' says Jose Luis Camacho Orozco, a high school student in Villa Morelos whose father works in San Antonio, Texas.
Speaking for the group of friends he's with, Jose Luis adds, ''We want to work and live in Michoacan.''