Why former Mexican migrants are staying home
Tougher border enforcement, jail time, and a slow US economy are causing some Mexicans to reconsider going north for work.
El Gusano, Mexico
José Balderama spent half a decade in the United States working roofing jobs in Texas. The money he sent home each month went to his wife and four children – a source of income the family expected to count on for many years to come.Skip to next paragraph
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But after serving six months at the Eden Detention Center in Texas for getting caught without the proper paperwork, he says he is never going back. "This was six months, next time it could be six years," he says on a recent day in this tiny town tucked in the foothills of the Sierra de Guanajuato mountains.
Towns like El Gusano have emptied out over the past decade as Mexicans have headed north for jobs. But tighter restrictions on immigration and a weakening US economy are sending some of these same men and women back home – some willingly, others not.
There are no figures to track the exact numbers of Mexicans returning, but statistics on apprehensions, unemployment, and anecdotal evidence in Mexico and the US paint a picture of change. Immigration prosecutions are at a historic high. State authorities are enforcing their own immigration rules. Even for those Mexicans in the US with proper documentation, jobs are scarce. The most immediate effect has been a drop in remittances. But many migrants are now wondering whether working in El Norte is worth it anymore.
"It's kind of a perfect combination of factors for undocumented immigrants right now to say, 'It's getting too costly. It's a good time to go home,' " says David Shirk, the director of the Transborder Institute at the University of San Diego.
El Gusano is an archetypal rural Mexican town. It is eerily quiet during all hours of the day, with the exception of the children's voices drifting from a tiny school playground. Over the past decade, almost all the adult men have gone to the US, followed increasingly by women and children, too.
But that is changing now, if only on a small scale. In the past two months, seven young men have shown up on doorsteps here, all of them deported for being in the US illegally.
In fact, the conversations in neat brick homes that line the one main road here has turned from the mundane – bread deliveries, local elections, school news – to worried talk about whose relative is in US jails. US agents "used to catch them, and leave them alone. Now they are spending 15 days in jail, or a month, or three months," says Maria de los Angeles Garcia, a lifelong resident here.
The US government maintains that stricter enforcement is helping to slow migrant flows. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said this month at a State of Immigration address that apprehensions are down 15 percent across the border. Some officials credit the rise in border patrol officers from 9,800 in 2002 to 16,471 this year. Workplace raids are up too: In May, 400 employees at a meatpacking plant in Iowa were arrested on immigration charges – touted as the largest single-site raid in US history.
And new zero-tolerance programs on the border, such as Operation Streamline in which immigrants caught crossing the border illegally are criminally prosecuted, have raised the stakes. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research center at Syracuse University that analyzes Justice Department records, the number of immigration prosecutions in March was 9,350, two and a half times the number from a year ago.