Looking north: Mexicans in migration

Hank Heifetz
10 April 2006

When I returned to Mexico in March 2006, after a few years away, almost everyone I spoke with brought up "the wall". Former colleagues, close friends, taxi-drivers, the occasional man or woman in the street with whom the courteous exchanges of Mexican small talk turned a shade deeper – they all had comments, bemused or mocking or angry, about the proposal that the United States should build a 1,130-kilometre wall (along part of its 3,200-kilometre border with Mexico) to keep Mexicans out.

True, it is a barrier (along one-third of the frontier) that may well never go up in anything like its entirety. Only a stretch of forty kilometres erected from 1993, stretching from the Tecate mountains to the Pacific Ocean just north of Tijuana, is currently in place. But the bill that sanctions it (passed only in the House of Representatives, and with little or no chance of gaining acceptance in the Senate) is felt as profoundly insulting to a people very touchy on matters of pride and national honour. As many as 2 million of them joined together to rally in 140 cities across the United States on 10 April in a "national day of action" to protest against an exclusive and regimented immigration policy; some carried banners proclaiming a warning to legislators: "Today we march, tomorrow we vote".

Mexicans see the threat of the wall – actual and symbolic - through a double prism of contemporary pressures and the long history of people-to-people confrontation with "the colossus of the north". When Mexico formally lost half of its territory to the United States in 1848, after the American invasion that came to be known as the Mexican-American war, some 80,000 Mexicans became resident American citizens. They were to suffer a considerably reduced status and much discrimination which forced many of them to migrate to Mexico, but they could at least move freely back and forth across the border.

At least until 1924, when the north Americans created the border patrol, part of the department of labour's immigration bureau; this quickly became known in Mexican shorthand as la migra, and as the classic enemy of undocumented immigrants. Mexicans crossing the border to work were now "illegals", including in the southwestern states that had been part of their homeland less than a century earlier. Soon they were to be even less welcome during the job drought of the great depression after 1929. At least 500,000 of them were deported during the 1930s.

Then, after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the US badly needed labour to replace its citizen-soldiers. An agreement signed in 1942 permitted the legal entrance of temporary agricultural workers from Mexico (the braceros – "those who work with their arms") that was to last until 1964. For the Mexican poor, the bracero period - when more than 4 million farm workers came to plant seeds, till fields and pick fruit in the US - left memories of useful income, hard labour and frequent mistreatment by the American employers to whom they were bound for their period of legal residence.

Also in openDemocracy on Mexico, the United States, and immigration:

Caroline Moorehead, "From Mexico to California, and back" (November 2003)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexican democracy in peril" (April 2005)

KA Dilday, "The labour of others" (April 2006)

While hitchhiking through Texas in the 1960s, I met a man in his 30s who was the son of a bracero and remembered crouching behind the family car at times when his father had to return rifle fire to force their way through small Texas towns not at all sympathetic to the passage of Mexicans. Most of the workers and their families (legal and illegal) who survived such travails would return to Mexico with the money they had earned.

In the 1970s, the growing emphasis in the US on the mechanical harvesting of most crops helped inaugurate a new pattern of immigration: an expansion of Mexicans across the body of the country instead of their remaining concentrated in California and the southwest border-states.

The two standard safety-valves for Mexican poverty and joblessness have been the receptive arms of the family and the northern frontier. A positive force of the strong Mexican family is its willingness to help members in trouble, to share food and housing when necessary (a darker side of Mexican family values is the tendency to nourish private – and even corrupt - loyalties above commitment to the larger society.) With the family open to those in immediate need and the frontier open to those willing to take their chances with la migra and the desert, the Mexican social order somehow survived such economic horrors as the collapse of the economy in 1982 and the disastrous currency devaluation of 1995.

Being a migrant the Mexican way

The thirty years from the 1970s to the early 21st century saw the official Mexican population of the US mushroom from approximately 800,000 to more than 8 million. Mexican "illegals" – now estimated, with obvious difficulty, to be around 6-7 million – are partially included in this number.

Most Mexicans regard job opportunities north of the border as a legitimate part of their geographical heritage. Increased attempts in the mid-1990s to control the most popular entrance points (including that section of fence built near Tijuana) have driven illegals to much less populated and much more dangerous crossings, where someone with expert knowledge of the area is absolutely needed as a guide. These are the coyotes (or polleros – "chicken-tenders") who lead groups across the terrain, ideally avoiding the many dangers: la migra, potential predators (Mexican or American), and self-appointed vigilantes.

The current going price per person is $3,000, a huge amount of money for a poor Mexican family to accumulate. On profits of this kind, some coyotes are able to build huge houses along the border or further south in states like Michoacán or Puebla, which are major sources of illegal immigrants.

Occasionally, a trip may cost far less. At a party, a friend told me that a woman from Mexico's north she employs to do domestic work frequently returns across the border for a family function or holiday, using a coyote de confianza for the purpose; the phrase, with its sense of "respectable, reliable coyote", triggered general laughter, since the more common image of the coyote is of a man who may leave his wards to die in the desert rather than risk arrest for himself (hundreds do die each year, of various causes - especially of exposure when lost in the Arizona desert - before they ever have a chance to increase the income of their families.) In any case, the greater control instituted at a few major checkpoints also now makes it much harder to return temporarily to Mexico (which most Mexicans want to do) and swells the population of illegals.

Mexicans – who tend to be persistent, quick-witted and not easily daunted – will continue to make their way across the frontier, irrespective of what proposals the United States legislature finally passes. The extremely inept presidency of Vicente Fox, mercifully coming to an end after six interminable years (an opinion I've encountered from most Mexicans across the entire political spectrum) has not been able to do much around this issue, in large part because of the shift in American focus after 9/11.

The incumbent Fox has tended to put his foot in his mouth as a regular practice, including on the issue of immigration; he both misstated Mexico's employment situation by implying that most illegals could have good jobs at home, even in an economy he has done very little to expand, and offended African-Americans by saying in May 2005 that Mexicans in the US take jobs that "even blacks don't want".

None of the three major presidential candidates in the 2 July election has made the error of criticising the illegals. All three candidates (Calderón of the rightwing PAN, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftwing PRD, and Roberto Madrazo of the former long-term ruling party, the PRI) call for more job opportunities in Mexico, something which will not happen without profound change in the power structures of the country.

It should be recalled that Mexicans abroad send remittances of $20 billion a year to their families, the second largest contribution to the Mexican economy after oil. Meanwhile, that other current of globalisation – the movement of people rather than investments – will stream northward through whatever channels it can find along the 3,200 kilometres of la frontera.

Is the pandemic changing attitudes towards migration?

Will Canada give its undocumented essential workers their rights? And where are the immigrants in the country’s policy debates?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 26 November, 5pm UK time/12pm EST.

Hear from:

Daniel Hiebert Professor of geography at the University of British Columbia

Andrew Parkin Executive director, Environics Institute, Toronto

Usha George Professor and director, Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement, Ryerson University, Canada

Keith Banting Professor emeritus and Stauffer Dunning Fellow, Queen’s University, Canada

Chair: Anna Triandafyllidou Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration, Ryerson University

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