'Orphans' of border crossings

As border tightens, Mexicans coming to US now leave kin behind permanently, eroding sense of family.

Sitting on his bunk in a nursing home on the edge of this Mexican border town, Jesus Valenzuela talks of how he has been left behind by his family.

In his six months at La Divina Providencia, after being shifted from the care of one family member to another, and finally to a neighbor, Mr. Valenzuela has received two visits from a daughter who lives in town. All the rest of his family have moved up north, to California.

"My family, they don't want me," says Valenzuela, a fiftyish former factory worker who lost his job because of health problems. Now to pass the time he helps out around the grounds, watering plants, guarding the gate, and watching children from La Divina's orphanage seesaw.

In a country that reveres family as much as Mexico, stories like Valenzuela's are not just heartbreaking. They are a sign of a growing rift in the Mexican family unit, and a byproduct of the economic pull that brings thousands of Mexicans to the North each year in search of jobs.

It's a problem that is being complicated by the growing effectiveness of the US Border Patrol. For years, Mexicans who entered the US illegally would go home several times a year to visit loved ones. Now, because of the fear of being caught when they reenter, many don't go back at all, often leaving behind grandparents, wives, and even infant children.

"In some respects, this is probably the tip of the iceberg," says Peter Ward, a sociologist at the University of Texas in Austin who has studied the effects of immigration on families left behind. "Mexican families tend to look after their own, and despite the poverty of the last [300 years, family networks] have considerable resources to overcome extremity. But in the '90s, the capacity of this informal social services network is eroding."

Just how big the problem is remains unknown, measured largely by anecdotes both along the border and deep in the Mexican interior. But considering Border Patrol estimates there are as many as 6 million undocumented immigrants living in the US, the majority of them Mexicans, it's a vast problem - one that is putting growing strains on Mexican family-service agencies.

Immigration, legal and otherwise, is just one factor that is changing the nature of Mexico's family-oriented society. Industrialization over the past 60 years has caused many young families to leave their villages for jobs in the big city. Now the economic pull of the booming US economy is drawing many of these same families up north, or pulling them apart one member at a time.

"The experience of separation has had a major impact on Mexican families," says Ruben Hernandez, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Women must raise their families alone as their husbands leave for the US. The elderly, who once could count on family to care for them and often still get monthly checks from relatives in the US, are now simply left alone. "It's been the family that has been the real safety net in Mexico. The fact that an elderly person is not included is a sign that this safety net is falling apart."

In some ways, the problem of family disruption is complicated by government policies. In the past two decades, Mexico has encouraged the development of maquiladoras, or sister factories, on both sides of the US-Mexico border, which drew thousands of workers to relatively high-paying jobs. But the demand for jobs in Mexico has been much stronger than the ability of maquiladoras to create them. Many Mexicans who have come to the border feel it's worth the risk of trying to find employment in the booming US - even though they know they may not be able to come back.

The result, says Raquel Marquez, a sociologist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is that "they can't check up on the elderly they have left behind."

At La Divina Providencia, Mother Superior Estela Ramirez Flores says that the effects of poverty in Mexico and prosperity in the US is "causing the breakdown of the Mexican family unit. It's disintegrating."

Once an orphanage for children, La Divina Providencia began taking in elderly Mexicans who could no longer care for themselves or who could no longer depend on the care of family. Now her orphanage and nursing home is full to the brim, and while she is receiving donations from a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based charity, Rancho Feliz Charitable Foundation, her nuns must work 12-hour shifts to care for all of their charges, old and young.

While some of her charges - like Victoria Nogales, a perky nonagenarian with a flirtatious smile - are perfectly capable of caring for themselves, others come in more desperate situations. Lupita, a blind and deaf woman, was found face down in a ditch several months ago in Agua Prieta. She cannot speak, so no one knows her real name.

Across town, at an orphanage called Casa Pepito, Enriqueta Ibarrola introduces visitors to one of her latest charges, an infant named David.

David's mother, a teenager from Chiapas, one day left a note pinned to her son's shirt, telling her husband she was leaving for the US. David's father said he could not care for the boy himself, and gave the child to Casa Pepito before leaving for the US.

"We were having a lot of children deported by the Border Patrol, so that's why we started the home," says Mrs. Ibarrola. In the past two years, Casa Pepito has cared for 1,500 children. Some, like David, will be adopted, usually by US families. Others, like the recently deported teenager, Juan Carlos, have a more uncertain future.

Juan Carlos left his mother in the state of Jalisco to join his father, who works in Dallas. Captured by the Border Patrol in Douglas, Ariz., he was sent to Casa Pepito, where he will have to stay until a parent can pick him up. His mother can't afford the bus ride, or to leave her other children. His father can afford it, but doesn't want to risk leaving the US and not being able to return.

For his part, Juan Carlos secretly hopes to escape Casa Pepito, and make another run for the border. "I want to live with my dad," says Juan Carlos, adding that his father has visited him four times in the past 13 years.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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