'Orphans' of border crossings
As border tightens, Mexicans coming to US now leave kin behind permanently, eroding sense of family.
AGUA PRIETA, MEXICO
Sitting on his bunk in a nursing home on the edge of this Mexican border town, Jesus Valenzuela talks of how he has been left behind by his family.Skip to next paragraph
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In his six months at La Divina Providencia, after being shifted from the care of one family member to another, and finally to a neighbor, Mr. Valenzuela has received two visits from a daughter who lives in town. All the rest of his family have moved up north, to California.
"My family, they don't want me," says Valenzuela, a fiftyish former factory worker who lost his job because of health problems. Now to pass the time he helps out around the grounds, watering plants, guarding the gate, and watching children from La Divina's orphanage seesaw.
In a country that reveres family as much as Mexico, stories like Valenzuela's are not just heartbreaking. They are a sign of a growing rift in the Mexican family unit, and a byproduct of the economic pull that brings thousands of Mexicans to the North each year in search of jobs.
It's a problem that is being complicated by the growing effectiveness of the US Border Patrol. For years, Mexicans who entered the US illegally would go home several times a year to visit loved ones. Now, because of the fear of being caught when they reenter, many don't go back at all, often leaving behind grandparents, wives, and even infant children.
"In some respects, this is probably the tip of the iceberg," says Peter Ward, a sociologist at the University of Texas in Austin who has studied the effects of immigration on families left behind. "Mexican families tend to look after their own, and despite the poverty of the last [300 years, family networks] have considerable resources to overcome extremity. But in the '90s, the capacity of this informal social services network is eroding."
Just how big the problem is remains unknown, measured largely by anecdotes both along the border and deep in the Mexican interior. But considering Border Patrol estimates there are as many as 6 million undocumented immigrants living in the US, the majority of them Mexicans, it's a vast problem - one that is putting growing strains on Mexican family-service agencies.
Immigration, legal and otherwise, is just one factor that is changing the nature of Mexico's family-oriented society. Industrialization over the past 60 years has caused many young families to leave their villages for jobs in the big city. Now the economic pull of the booming US economy is drawing many of these same families up north, or pulling them apart one member at a time.
"The experience of separation has had a major impact on Mexican families," says Ruben Hernandez, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Women must raise their families alone as their husbands leave for the US. The elderly, who once could count on family to care for them and often still get monthly checks from relatives in the US, are now simply left alone. "It's been the family that has been the real safety net in Mexico. The fact that an elderly person is not included is a sign that this safety net is falling apart."