Mexico braces for return of workers from el norte

ON the unpaved street where Anita Alonzo lives in her modest adobe house, very little changes from morning to night. Pigs decamp from one side of the street for the other to escape a shifting sun, a tethered burro gives an occasional plaintive cry, and throughout the day men young and old gather to talk and wait. ``When the rains come the men work the fields,'' says Mrs. Alonzo, who shares her house and walled courtyard with her son and daughter-in-law and their two small boys. ``After the harvest, many of the men go to el norte.''

Like so many other Mexican mothers, Alonzo has seen her own son go north to the United States - every year since 1982, in her son Felipe's case - to earn the dollars that keep the family going until the next year's crop of beans and corn comes in.

But the economic arrangement that has sustained La Prieta and so many other Mexican villages and towns for decades has now been changed. United States immigration reform, passed by Congress last year to halt the flow of aliens across the nation's borders, includes a number of measures that will deeply affect Mexico. For the first time ever, employing undocumented aliens is now an illegal act, punishable by fines and imprisonment. In addition, only those aliens who have lived in the US continuously since 1982 are eligible for the law's amnesty program.

As a result, Mexicans in the US who cannot find work or who do not qualify for amnesty are trickling back south, spreading tales of lost jobs or tougher prospects for employment in the future.

It is estimated that up to 60 percent of the 6 million to 8 million illegal aliens in the US are from Mexico. This country is expecting thousands of returnees, who will add to the already high numbers of unemployed.

In La Prieta, a government-subsidized village of 1,000 sitting among mesquite and cactus 50 miles north of Zacatecas, there is general incredulity that the US will actually send home its ``cheap laborers.'' Just what effect the new US law will have on this humble collection of dirt streets and adobe huts is also cause for concern.

``Things were slowly getting better for this village, but now we're going to go backwards,'' said Arcenio Najera Sauceda, who talked about the law while installing a new water line to his house. Mr. Najera spent two years in California working in plant nurseries, and would like his son to be able to do the same. ``But now, a lack of papers prevents him,'' he says, adding that instead the son has been looking for work in Mexican cities to the north, Saltillo and Monterrey, but without results.

Residents here estimate that more than 50 percent of La Prieta's men spend at least part of the year working in the US. Virtually everyone knows someone, either from here or from among family and friends around Mexico, who is still in the US, but whose status is uncertain.

``My husband says he'll visit [me] next month, but now he may have trouble,'' says Ludivina V'asquez, whose husband has not returned to La Prieta from his agricultural job in Florida for 16 months. While she waits, Mrs. V'asquez tends her mother's tiny grocery store and watches over the daughter of her sister, who left for San Jose, Calif., in December to join her husband. ``They plan to send for the girl when they are more secure,'' she adds, shrugging her shoulders in doubt of when that might be.

``If it gets to the point where no one can go over there from here to work, it's going to hurt all of Mexico,'' says Alfonso Pinales, who worked six years in a cut-flower packing plant in San Jose. The money he earned in that job allowed him steadily to improve the house he lives in with his pregnant wife and two children.

Mr. Pinales says he doesn't know anyone who has returned to La Prieta because of the new US law, but he expects to begin seeing returning workers ``in one or two months.''

Yet the return, to La Prieta and other villages and towns around it, has begun. H'ector Ch'avez Uribe, wearing a plaid shirt and a shy smile, drives his black Ford pickup down Anita Alonzo's street, a Texas license plate on the front.

``I was fired two months ago because I didn't have the papers they wanted,'' says Mr. Ch'avez, who worked for 3 years for a construction company in Houston. He displays a check stub showing that last year he had earned nearly $9,000 by fall. When he compares that with the $20 a week he and his friends say they can earn in the fields around their village, he adds, ``Even though I was fired, I still think I'll try to go back.''

Ch'avez was fired despite the provisions of the law, which stipulate that no alien working prior to the law's passage should be fired because of it. That may be of no help to him now, but even if he has trouble getting a job in the US in the future, he still has good reason to try to go back: Another paper he safely guards shows that the Houston company he worked for still holds nearly $5,000 in his name in a profit-sharing trust, to be paid in full one year after termination of employment.

Pointing out that his father, who worked several years for the same company, never received the $8,000 held for him in the same trust because he never returned to claim it, Ch'avez says, ``I think it would be worth going back to Houston.''

Despite the stories of increasing difficulty for aliens in finding jobs in the US, many residents of La Prieta and elsewhere in Mexico say they do not believe those circumstances will last.

``You are going to need Mexicans to do your hard labor,'' says Mauro Celestino Anguiano, whose family has been sending men to the US to work for more than 20 years, and who himself has been to Texas four times since 1982. ``I know that Americans do not do most of the jobs I did up there.''

Mr. Celestino, who lives in the town of Concepci'on del Oro in northern Zacatecas State, says he will wait to see what effect la ley de Rodino, as he calls the law, actually has on the availability of work in the US.

(The new law, co-sponsored by Sen. Alan Simpson [R] of Wyoming and Rep. Peter Rodino [D] of New Jersey, is making the two officials into household names across Mexico. One Monterrey newspaper carries a logo on its US immigration stories in which two of the ``O's'' in ``Simpson-Rodino'' are the two ends of a set of handcuffs).

``Every night the news talks about it,'' he says, adding that others returning from the US, as well as relatives he has in several Texas cities, will keep him informed of the job possibilities.

In any case Celestino, who was deported from San Antonio earlier this year before he could find a job, says he will surely try to cross the border again soon, perhaps in June.

``Because of the poverty here, because of the hunger, people are not going to respect that law,'' he says.

And if the employers, worried about sanctions, refuse to hire him? ``I'll try another boss, and then another,'' says Celestino, a grin breaking across his face. ``I know I'll be able to find one who will like my work.''

First of two articles. Next, how Mexican regional officials are responding to US immigration reform.

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