Tighter US Laws Did Not Stop One Mexican Family Migration

JANET RENO, Proposition 187, and diluvian rainstorms notwithstanding, our housekeeper this month joined hubby and kids on a plane and moved to California - illegally.

The plane went only as far as Tijuana, Mexico. But the young family of four left Mexico City on a Friday with false documents, and by Saturday they were safe enough within the borders of the Golden State to call relatives back home.

We know this because the aunt of our housekeeper keeps us up-to-date with what little news she has from her niece. Maybe they'll come back soon, she says, or maybe they'll stay awhile if they get jobs as other members of the family, also illegal, have done. Or quien sabe (who knows)?

This experience has been an eye-opener for us, in what it says about Mexico-US migration. For some Mexicans, the move is a natural one, a life decision influenced by economics and personal or social factors, but hardly affected by the maelstrom of political endeavors on either side of the border - and mostly on THAT side - to stanch the flow.

Most recently, many immigration foes in the United States have warned that Mexico's peso devaluation would send new waves of Mexicans across the border.

Yet while the crash may have provided our housekeeper a final impetus, it didn't seem to play an important role. She most likely would have joined her family in California at some point anyway, at least to sample life in the US.

An easy decision

What struck us was the apparent ease with which the decision to move to the US - and to California no less, which has been the focus of a spreading anti-immigration debate - had been taken.

Perhaps months of deliberation preceded the departure, but from outward appearances the decision caused less hand-wringing than most people might experience moving from Peoria, Ill., to Los Angeles.

Part of the explanation is that our housekeeper, in California's Bay Area for the last two weeks, was going to join her relatives.

Last summer her parents left for California to be with another daughter who was having a baby. They had planned to stay for a month or so, but the mother had gotten a job keeping house, so they stayed on.

But wasn't our young housekeeper, a habitually cheery person, worried about Proposition 187, and what it said about the state of California's welcome mat for illegal immigrants?

Hadn't she heard about the Border Patrol's Operation Gatekeeper and how US Attorney General Reno said such stepped-up border surveillance programs would be maintained and even intensified?

None of that seemed to matter. With a broad smile she told us that her family in California assured her that reports of anti-immigrant sentiments were greatly exaggerated and that the people employing her family members had explained Proposition 187, an overwhelmingly approved ballot proposal to limit services such as health care and education to illegal immigrants, would probably never be implemented.

What did worry her family, she said, was Mexico's financial crisis, created on Dec. 19 when Mexico's President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon failed to uphold the value of the peso, and the renewed hardship that would bring.

Some US immigration officials insist Mexico's economic troubles will translate into increased attempts to immigrate illegally this year. Seconding that mood, Ms. Reno announced plans earlier this month for 1,200 additional Border Patrol agents, including more than 500 for California alone.

Advocates of such measures point to Border Patrol statistics from 1982, following another peso devaluation, when arrests of undocumented border crossers rose by more than a third.

Rise in immigration?

But Jorge Bustamante, director of migration studies at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in the northern state of Tijuana, says such statistics are misleading because they fail to point out that the increased arrests were made by a beefed up Border Patrol in anticipation of higher numbers of crossings.

Instead, Mr. Bustamante points to his own research from 1982 - carried out in six key Mexican border cities - and says that attempted border crossings actually fell by about 3 percent. He argues that events such as a devaluation have little effect on illegal immigration.

If anything, they lead to a temporary decrease.

``A devaluation of the peso means that the journey and attempted crossing are suddenly much more expensive,'' he says, ``since the costly aspects of it'' - the bribes, the ``coyotes'' who help people cross, the false documents - ``are all paid in dollars.''

Bustamante's most current research, for the first six months of 1994, shows a slight but steady decline in attempted illegal crossings, largely due to spreading word of tighter job availability in California.

What does drive Mexico-to-US migration, he argues, is the US labor market, and social factors. And neither a devaluation in Mexico nor a ``political measure'' like Proposition 187, which he says was ``designed to reelect the governor of California,'' make much difference.

Wait and see

As for our housekeeper, Bustamante says, ``She probably saw a chance to do two things at the same time: be with her family and [financially] do a little better.''

The latest word from her aunt is that our housekeeper's mother is talking about returning to Mexico in December. So if our housekeeper stays that long she may come back then, she says, or if she and her husband have good jobs they may stay on with her sister.

``Quien sabe?'' she says with a smile, ``Who knows?''

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