f e a t u r e
Political Support for Immigration Pact May Have Evaporated,
but in Mexico, Migration Pressures are on the Rise
by Jonathan Treat | February 1, 2002
Arrests of undocumented migrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border
dropped 57% during the three months following the September 11 terrorist
attacks in the U.S.
Also since the attacks, talks between Mexican President Vicente Fox and
U.S. President George W. Bush about liberalizing immigration policy have
stalled. Officials on both sides of the border say they are continuing
the dialogue, but the previously proposed, sweeping policy changes-including
amnesty for Mexican migrants in the United States without documentation
and an expanded guestworker program-have been pushed into the background
by a new focus on border security.
The reduction in numbers of border crossers, at least, isn’t likely to
last long. The increasingly intertwined U.S. and Mexican economies, rocketing
unemployment south of the border, and the long-established crossborder
U.S.-Mexico labor market all mean that Mexicans will continue traverse
the border-legally or illegally-in search of economic opportunities.
“Migration between Mexico and the United States is a permanent,
structural phenomenon. It is built on real factors, ranging from geography,
economic inequality, and integration, and the intense relationship between
the two countries, that make it inevitable,” concluded a December
2001 report by Mexico’s National Population Council (CONAPO).
“We Work and Work,
But It Seems We Don’t Get Anywhere”
More than half of Mexico’s population lives in poverty or extreme poverty,
according to official statistics. Income distribution is increasingly
skewed in favor of Mexico’s rich. CONAPO reported in July last year that
the richest 10% of Mexican households received half of Mexico’s national
income. In contrast, in 2000 the poorest 20% of Mexican households received
only 4% of the nation’s income.
Such stark inequities in income distribution have led to a highly polarized
society with “a forgotten Mexico-poor, composed principally of the
Indian populations…who suffer an infinity of unmet needs…[and a] modern
Mexico, integrated into globalization, with examples of prosperity worthy
of countries of the First World,” writes Rodolfo Turain, director
The scarcity of jobs, low wages, and the ever-rising cost of living prompt
many Mexicans to cross into the United States to seek service and construction
jobs. Minimum wages in Mexico range from $4.20 to $4.60 per day. Workers
in border zone maquiladora plants-many of them foreign owned-do better,
earning about $2 an hour. Still, when adjusted for inflation, maquiladora
wages in all border states remain below 1994 levels.
“If I work six days a week for 10 hours, I make 300 or 400 pesos
($33-44), says Juan Carlos Lopez Ramirez, a 25-year-old waiter at a restaurant
in the city of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. “My father has passed away
and it’s very hard for my mother. I try to help, but there’s never enough.
In Mexico we work and work, but it seems we don’t get anywhere. We want
to give more to our families, but we can’t,” he adds.
Anatomy of an Economic Migrant
Just two years ago, Lopez was working a job and attending classes for
a degree in architecture. Unlike his younger brother and many of his peers
who had gone to work in the United States, he had never planned to leave
his home to work in “el norte.”
Then things changed.
“I love Oaxaca. I said I’d never leave it. But my family ran into
some difficult times and they needed my help. And working to pay for school
left me with little to give them,” he explains.
Like millions of Mexicans who live one step away from economic crisis,
when trouble hit, Lopez began to think about working in the north as a
way to help his family. Many of his friends and relatives had made the
journey across the border illegally to find jobs that allowed them to
both survive and send money home to Mexico.
Money remitted to Mexico by relatives working U.S. jobs is a critical
source of income for many families here. Some 1.25 million households
received remittances in 2000, according to CONAPO. In the first nine months
of 2001, Mexicans working in the United States sent a total of roughly
$6.7 billion south across the border. The average single remittance was
$300, and most migrant workers sent money home once or twice a month.
“I looked at what I could give my family while working here; it
was very little. Then I considered what people who’d gone to the United
States had told me-how much more money I could make there,” Lopez
explains. “It was a huge difference-eight to 10 times what I was
making in Oaxaca. I knew I had to leave.”
In the spring of 1999, he hopped a bus with his uncle for the border
state of Sonora. They arrived at a relative’s Sonoran home two days later
with $150 in their pockets and began looking for a coyote (paid guide)
to take them across the border.
“It was a hot, dusty, desolate place. While we waited to find a
coyote, we were trying not to spend the little money we had,” Lopez
recalls. “We ate only when we were very hungry.”
Three weeks later, Lopez had made two grueling northward trips through
the desert. Both trips ended in the back of U.S. Border Patrol pickups.
He and his uncle were processed in Tucson, Ariz., then dropped off at
“I was very discouraged. The trips had been very hard-and for nothing.
But I had to try again. I’d come so far. But I had no idea how bad the
next attempt would be,” he says.
A Desperate Crossing
After failing twice, Lopez and his uncle learned of another crossing
being planned. They went that evening to find the coyote, who said it
would be an easy trip, mostly in pickups-there wouldn’t be much walking.
And he was willing to be paid after successfully getting them across the
They left at dawn the next day in the back of an old pickup. A few hours
later, the truck pulled to a stop.
“We’re going to walk a little,” the coyote said.
It was late morning, and already the heat was stifling, Lopez recounts.
Following the coyote, the would-be migrants set off, each carrying a 5-liter
bottle of water, a few cans of beans, and some tortillas.
After trudging five hours, Lopez asked the guide how much further they
would be walking. “Not much further,” the coyote replied.
Several hours later, Lopez asked again, pointing out they’d first been
told most of the trip would be in pickups.
“No, we’re going to walk a lot more,” the coyote said matter-of-factly.
Lopez realized it was going to be a very difficult crossing.
Their water grew scarce. “My mouth was so dry, there was no saliva.
We were getting desperate,” remembers Lopez. “The coyote knew
he had to do something. He looked all around, and finally found a kind
of cactus. He cut it open and pulled out the pulp inside, cut it into
pieces, and gave a piece to everyone. It helped a little, but we were
still thirsty. There was no other cactus like that around.”
That night, they started out again, walking in the desert cold, stopping
to rest 20 minutes every four hours. “My body hurt all over, and
there were times when I needed to rest-we all needed to rest. But the
coyote said there were migra (border patrol officers) around, and that
we had to keep moving,” Lopez says.
Eventually, they heard the distant rumble of a pickup. When it pulled
up, the coyote directed the women to get in the back, and told the men:
“Wait here. Don’t move. I’ll be back soon.” He jumped in the
passenger seat and soon the pickup disappeared into the distance.
“That was a very desperate moment. Several guys were saying he wouldn’t
be back, that we should start walking, take our chances. I was afraid.
We were so exhausted,” Lopez says. “But we decided to stay and
wait. We had no idea where we were. I was so hopeless then, very hopeless.
I was thinking of my home, of my family. I was asking myself, “What
am I doing here? I want to be with my Mom, drinking cold water,”
remembers Lopez. “And we didn’t know if the coyote was coming back.
It was anguish.”
But the coyote kept his word. After a day of anxious hiding in the desert
heat, the truck came back again the next night. “Hey raza, vamonos,
let’s go!” the coyote whispered from inside.
Elated, the men jumped in the back of the pickup-but their relief was
“I was in the back of the pickup, holding my medallion of the Virgin
de Juquila, thanking her for getting me across,” says Lopez. “All
of the sudden, the truck pulled over and the coyote told us to run.”
Within a few minutes, they’d all been rounded up by Border Patrol agents.
The next day they were in Mexico again, exhausted and reeling from yet
another failed crossing.
A few days later, he says, Lopez and his uncle crossed again with a different
coyote-this time, the trip was easier, and they made it, first to Tucson,
then to Los Angeles, then San Francisco, where family members put them
It took Lopez four attempts spread out over two months to finally cross.
He was lucky. Hundreds of migrants who’ve made the same attempt have died
In 2001 alone, at least 490 people lost their livings trying to cross
the border between Mexico and the United States-106 in the Arizona desert
where Lopez made his four tries. Some estimates double that figure, however.
When asked about how he felt crossing in an area where so many have died,
Lopez says that he knew the trip was dangerous but tried not to think
“There were times during the trips when I thought of the people
that had died. And I was afraid. But I would think, ‘I’ve come so far.
It’s cost me so much. I have to go on,'” he explains.
The New Border
Lopez’s hope to find a better future working in the north-a hope fueled
by desperation-is shared by many of his fellow Mexicans. Their numbers
are growing, day by day.
Mexicans are finding it harder to make ends meet due to the country’s
current economic problems. More than 500,000 Mexican workers were laid
off last year as the economy entered a recession. Those layoffs are closely
linked to the downturn of the U.S. economy, the destination of 88% of
Mexican exports, and 95% of goods produced in maquiladoras.
After 12 years of steady growth, many maquiladoras along the border are
now drastically cutting production and engaging in massive layoffs-and
industry officials see no end in sight. By conservative estimates, more
than 200,000 workers in assembly plants lost their jobs last year as payrolls
were reduced. Nearly 100 maquiladoras in Mexico have closed, at least
70 of them near the border.
Worse still for the nearly 1.5 million Mexicans employed in maquiladoras,
the economic downturn has prompted many foreign factory owners to increase
the intensity of their complaints regarding what they say are excessive
taxes and tariffs, an overvalued peso, and high wages. Many have threatened
to move their facilities to other sites in Latin America and Asia, where
labor costs are lower.
Assembly workers in El Salvador, for example, are paid an average of
$1.59 an hour. In Indonesia the same job pays roughly $1.19, and in China
about 43 cents per hour. “Even after the U.S. economy improves, and
the demand picks up, it will be cheaper for manufacturers to produce in
regions of the world,” noted Juan Pablo Fuentes, an economist at
the consulting firm DRI-WEFA in Philadelphia in a recent New York Times
To address claims by industry leaders that wages on the border are becoming
too high for low-skilled assembly outfits, President Fox is urging such
factories to move south. “In southern Mexico we are establishing
the same conditions as in Guatemala or China. Maquiladoras do not have
to leave Mexico. We can offer them the same level of competitiveness,”
Fox has said. 
That statement speaks a bitter truth: With the highest rates of malnutrition
and illiteracy in the nation, Mexico’s impoverished southern region has
much in common with its neighbors to the south. Desperation and the low
wages so attractive to maquiladora owners, it seems, go hand-in-hand.
Meanwhile, with maquiladora laborers in Mexico’s northern border zone
in danger of being priced out of the global labor market, the industry’s
race for the lowest wage may in turn mean a race across the border by
Agricultural producers and workers in Mexico are desperate as well, adding
to emigration pressures. Roughly 25% of Mexicans depend on agriculture
for their livelihoods; in recent years they have seen their incomes shrink
due to rising costs and falling prices-often because of cheaper farm commodities
imported from the United States and other countries.
Many analysts predict that Mexican agricultural workers who can’t survive
the current recession and global competition will inevitably try crossing
into the United States to look for work. Officials in Mexico’s agricultural
states agree that the farm crisis has created new waves of migration to
the United States.
While the U.S. economic downturn and post 9-11 security consciousness
has been seen as having had an impact Mexico migration, many experts argue
that the worsening Mexican economy will likely eclipse that phenomenon.
“As Mexico’s economy contracts-dragged down by the recession in
the U.S.-this will generate stronger pressures for emigration,” Wayne
Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies
at UC-San Diego, recently told the Los Angeles Times. “Even with
the greater competition for jobs in the U.S., most migrants will still
have a better chance of finding adequately paid employment north of the
border than if they remained in Mexico.”[ 4 ]
Indeed, while not back to pre-September 11 levels, the number of apprehensions
of undocumented migrants trying to cross the border is on the rise again,
according to recent reports.
For his part, Juan Carlos Lopez Ramirez had planned to work four or five
years in the United States until he saved enough money to return to Oaxaca
and open a small restaurant with his mother. Two months ago, however,
he got the news that one of his brothers was ill and in the hospital.
Within a week, Lopez was back in Oaxaca. He’s not sure when, if ever,
he’ll return to the United States. He’s thinking again about a career
in architecture. But his younger brother is planning an illegal trip across
the border next week.
“We recently talked to a friend who had crossed without any problems.
He said things are more or less back to normal. And everything is arranged
for my brother to cross. He’s leaving in a few days,” Lopez says.
“[Due to the U.S. recession,] one of my uncles there has had to pick
up another job, and another is only working four days a week.
“It’s still worth going,” he adds.
Jonathan Treat, a journalist and independent documentary filmmaker
with extensive experience in Mexico and Central America, writes regularly
for the IRC’s America’s Program. Based in Oaxaca, Mexico, he also works
with the Spring Institute, a Denver-based nonprofit corporation offering
ESL and job training classes to immigrants and refugees.
1. Ginger Thompson, “Fallout of U.S. Recession Drifts South Into
Mexico,” The New York Times, December 26, 2001.
3. Migration News, Vol. 8, No. 10, October 2001.
4. James Smith and Ken Ellingwood, “Sept. 11 Leaves Carpet Loomers
Idle in Oaxacan Town,” The Los Angeles Times, November 28, 2001.
Center for Immigration
Maquila Wages Insufficient”
borderlines, vol. 9, no. 8, iss. 81, September 2001.
New U.S.-Mexico Migration Relationship”
borderlines, vol. 9, no. 8, iss. 81, September 2001.
and the Economic Underpinnings of Mexico-U.S. Migration”
borderlines, vol. 8, no. 8, iss. 79, September 2001.
Victor Clark Alfaro
| Centro Binacional de Derechos Humanos, A.C.
Isabel Garcia |
Coalición de Derechos Humanos/Arizona Border Rights Project
Rev. Robin Hoover
| Humane Borders
| Casa del Migrante, A.C.
Program Coordinator | Mexico-US Advocates Network
by the Interhemispheric Resource Center’s Americas
Program . All rights reserved.
“Political Support for Immigration Pact May Have Evaporated, but
in Mexico, Migration Pressures are on the Rise,” Americas Program
Feature (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, February 1,
Web location: http://www.americaspolicy.org/articles/2002/0202immigration.html