Mexicans in the U.S. sending fewer dollars home
Remittances peaked at $24 billion last year. A slowing US economy and tougher border enforcement is blamed.
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In Emiliano Zapata, a village that sits on a hill miles from the main highway, Juana Ayala Pastor is feeling the loss. Her son, who works on farms in Oregon, now sends money only sporadically to their 11-member household. "His money was our only source of hope," she says. The $500 received religiously each month is now an occasional $200. He could not find a job for six months.Skip to next paragraph
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In the Inter-American Development Bank survey, 81 percent of Latin American immigrants said they were having a harder time finding well-paying jobs compared with a year ago.
Ms. Ayala Pastor's immediate solution has been to stop buying cooking gas; she cooks entirely over an open fire now. Other families here are also feeling the pinch. Some parents weren't able to put money into the children's school fund collected at the beginning of each year for books and uniforms. But the biggest concern here is putting food on the table.
Juana's sister, Socorro, another lifelong resident, says that because the town is so small, when they are short on cash they can buy food from the local stores on credit. But they are also taking their own measures.
A group of women here is working with a local non-profit called the Women's Team for Solidarity Action to grow organic corn, beans, pumpkin, and garbanzos in parcels they own, and cilantro, scallions, and chilies on their front patios. "It's to save a little money," Socorro says.
"We worry most about them getting enough to eat, and with [Mexican] agriculture shifting to a focus on making money instead of feeding people, we are trying to convince them to go back to their traditional practices of being self-sustaining," says Ana Luisa Barajas, the general coordinator for the women's group, known by its Spanish initials, EMAS.
The women have also started a communal savings account shared by some 30 families. Every eight days they contribute at least 2 pesos (about 18 cents), or as much as $20, to use in case of an emergency. [Editor's Note: The original version miscalculated the conversion rate of pesos to dollars.]
Towns must resort to such measures, says Mr. Gil Corona, in the absence of state or federal measures to address the dependence on money sent from abroad. He says that during the decade that remittances grew, the country did not use the money for development. A federal infrastructure-building program (with state and local participation) that matches remittances in a 3-to-1 ratio – this program was used to construct the church and pave the road in Emiliano Zapata – only works when remittances are plentiful, he says. He and other analysts argue that rather than spending on infrastructure, the government should have been providing matching funds for programs that create long-term employment.
Mexico acutely felt the last US recession in 2001, but remittances did not drop as quickly as they are now. That is why Mr. Terry says the role of tougher US enforcement, such as workplace raids and prosecutions for first-time crossers along the border, and a general rise in anti-immigration sentiment, may be a factor. In the Inter-American Development Bank study, 68 percent of respondents considered discrimination against immigrants a major problem. That's a sharp jump from 37 percent in 2001.
There are other reasons remittances fall, including family disintegration and, in some cases, family resettlement. Based on what she's seeing in Michoacán, Ms. Barajas says that the decline in remittances can both spur immigration and curb it.
She says that it is a catalyst for women and entire families to migrate to the US. Yet it is also drawing some men back home, as they prefer the lower-paid but steadier jobs in nearby processing plants. In the medium and long-term, however, immigration to the US, which depends so heavily on migrant labor and where Mexican households can earn 10 times the average monthly salary at home of $160, will continue, says Terry. "That's the demographic reality." [Editor's note: The original version failed to state the salary's time frame.]
But immigrants are also cognizant of economic trends and the strength of the euro versus the dollar. That means more Latin American immigrants are heading to Europe for work. For the first time this year, some Andean countries are getting more remittance money coming from Spain than from the US.
• Tomorrow: Is stiffer US-Mexico border enforcement reducing immigration?