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.

Sara Miller Llana
For years, José Balderama (r.) worked as a roofer in Texas and sent money home to his wife, Tersesa Garcia Alvarez. After six months in a US jail, he says he won't be going back.

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.

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.

States have also gotten tougher. Gyla Gonzalez, the executive director of Latinos United of Carroll County, a nonprofit group, says that new state laws in Georgia, using driver's licenses and documentation for employment, has scared many migrants away. Attendance at the health clinic their organization runs, she says, is down by more than two-thirds in the past few months; "These types of laws in Georgia are making undocumented immigrants start to leave," she says.

Enforcement is one factor, the slowing US economy is another. In fact, many analysts say that enforcement would be ineffective if the "American Dream" weren't so elusive today. Hardest hit has been the construction industry, which employs more than 20 percent of Mexican migrants.

"Immigrants are having problems finding jobs, and now that it's more difficult to move around [because of stricter enforcement], employment is even harder," says Guillermo Meneses, an immigration specialist at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. "Both are working against them."

The Pew Hispanic Center recently reported that unemployment is rising among Latino immigrants but it doesn't have any hard data that this is prompting them to exit the US labor force.

In El Gusano, the "data" can be found sitting on the front porches. Normally, at this time of year, Miguel Perez Garcia is in Texas mowing lawns and manicuring shrubs for homes. He spends the spring and summer months in the US before returning to Mexico.

But this year, the permit he has received for the past six seasons never came in the mail.

"I don't know why it didn't come," he says, sitting on his front patio on a recent day with his wife and two teenage children in El Gusano. He says it is too tough to cross the border illegally, so he'll do what he can to remedy the economic shortfall this year and hope for the best next year.

The current situation is unsettling, but some here are appreciating having their men home, even if it means less income. "We forgot about the money," says Teresa Garcia Alvarez, José Balderama's wife, smiling, on a recent day when asked about how they'll make ends meet now.

Residents say that they are seeing a renewed sense of life in communities that can often feel like ghost towns. There is more repartee in the tiny stores where residents meet over a soda. "It's not as quiet here anymore," says Ms. Garcia. "We feel safer."

The men of El Gusano didn't start migrating until about a decade ago, when the bricklayer jobs in nearby Leon disappeared. The exodus – and the cash inflows from the US – have visibly altered the town. Homes of cardboard and metal sheeting were replaced with bricks. Patios were constructed. But, as in the rest of rural Mexico, the migration shattered families.

Will the men coming back stay, and rebuild relationships? Will children have a father around the house? These are questions being asked now by the women of El Gusano.

Garcia says that many of her male relatives have, in the past year, tried to stay home. But in the end, the forces of economic opportunity draw most of them back. She suspects that when the US economy recovers and enforcement wanes, they'll go north again.

Maria de la Luz Uribe's husband was deported in January and vowed to stay put in El Gusano. But a month later, he was back in the US. He couldn't make ends meet working as a bricklayer here.

"I didn't want him to go," she says. And now he wishes he hadn't gone either. After a stint in jail for his undocumented status, and few jobs available, his situation is precarious. He's barely sending any more money home than he was making in Mexico. Now, he tells her that he just has to pay off his smuggling debt. "Then he's coming home," she says.

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