For Mexicans seeking to cross the US border, it's not just about jobs anymore

New surveys find the recession has reduced Mexican immigration, but that millions still want to come to the US – and some more for safety than for jobs.

By , Staff writer

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    Mexican Antonio Ocampo, a recently deported migrant from Seattle, waits for a chance to cross back into the US near the border fence in Tijuana on Thursday.
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New data about Mexican immigration to the United States find that the evaporation of jobs during the US recession has done little to dissuade millions of Mexicans from wanting to move across the border amid growing signs that many Mexicans are motivated to leave home not by the lure of higher wages but by fears for their safety.

To be sure, economic opportunity is still the main driver behind Mexican immigration. That's meant the overall number of Mexican's in the US has shrunk slightly in the past year as construction came to a standstill and suburbanites put their gardens at the bottom of their priority lists.

But an expected wave of reverse migration, in which unemployed Mexicans would stream back home to their cities and villages, has been more like a trickle. New US census data shows only a slight decline in the US foreign-born population in 2008. And a new study by the Pew Research Center shows that one in three Mexicans – about 35 million people – would head to "el norte" if they could.

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On top of the traditional economic reasons, a growing number of Mexicans feel unsafe in their own country, particularly wealthier citizens who are targets of kidnap gangs and other forms of crime.

Surveys have shown over the past decade that the main motivation for immigration by Latino populations is overwhelmingly economic, followed by family reunification. But the violence raging across the country, where more than 13,000 have been killed in drug-related violence since Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office in late 2006 and dispatched the military to fight drug gangs, is also pushing people across the border.

"There is no question that it is happening … and it is extensive compared to what happened in the past," says Josiah Heyman, a border expert at the University of Texas at El Paso. At least along the border, many of those moving out of security concerns are from the upper and middle classes, Mr. Heyman says. "It is not that insecurity doesn't affect poor Mexicans in the countryside. But people who can pick up and leave the country in response to crime are people who have money."

Drug crimes

Mexico's Attorney General's office says that 90 percent of victims in drug-related homicides are criminals themselves. But President Calderón's tough stance has pushed gangs desperate for income into other criminal areas, such as kidnapping and extortion – the kinds of activities that have an impact on the average citizen.

In Ciudad Juárez, Mexico's most violent city and just across the border from El Paso, Texas, residents told the Monitor in December that they, or their friends and colleagues, were increasingly getting threats via phone or were forced to "pay" for their safety. They said many small business owners had simply left for the US.

More Mexicans say country is in bad shape

"Our survey clearly shows that Mexicans are pretty unhappy with direction of their country," says Richard Wike, the associate director of the Global Attitudes Project that carried out the Pew study.

Their number one concern? Crime. Eighty-one percent of those surveyed say it is a "very big" problem, followed by economic issues (75 percent) and illegal drugs (73 percent). Seventy-eight percent of those surveyed, in face-to-face interviews that took place in late May and early June, say the country is on the wrong track – up ten percentage points from the year before – and 69 percent say the economy is in bad shape.

The Pew survey did not ask Mexicans to rank the reasons for their desire to emigrate, but it was conducted as the economic situation in the US has put a strain on immigrants, leading to a drop in remittances. US census data, released Monday, reports a dip in the overall foreign-born population, from 12.6 percent of the population in 2007 at just over 38 million to 12.5 percent last year, when it stood at just under 38 million. Four of ten Pew respondents also said they know someone who left for the US but returned because they couldn't find a job.

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Brazilian immigrants were the second-fastest growing illegal population in the US – until the recession hit, and many turned around. Read about how that has affected one US community here.

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