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Dreams and Borders: Looking at Immigration from the Mexican side

April 2007

The raid came on a Friday night. Law enforcement officials swooped down on hundreds of undocumented immigrants who had not made it far past the border. That’s when “the American dream,” as so many migrants call it without irony, ended for over one hundred of them who were detained, some hospitalized with major injuries. “Everybody was running as fast as they could because the authorities were hitting them to force them to climb onto the pickup trucks,” reported Teresa García, one of the ones who ended up in the hospital. “I slipped and fell, people were stepping on me and then I lost consciousness.” One woman, she added, “was pregnant, maybe five months, and I was able to see them pulling her and hitting her to arrest her. It was very violent, there was a lot of yelling.” It was the third major raid on migrants in this location in a month’s time.

It was an all-too-familiar experience for Mexicans trying to cross into Arizona, California, or Texas. Except this raid did not take place in any of those states, but in Mexico’s southern-most state of Chiapas. And those detained were not Mexicans, but Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, and one Cuban.

Welcome to Mexico’s other immigration problem. In the words of Isabel Vericat, a filmmaker working on a documentary spotlighting illegal immigration across Mexico’s southern border, “The northern border of Mexico begins in the south.” An estimated 350,000 undocumented immigrants–a majority Central American, but also including many from South America–crossed from Guatemala and Belize in 2005. They came not to seek a living in Mexico’s sputtering economy, but to find a way to El Norte. Of the 350,000, it is estimated that about 40,000 made it to their objective. Another 10,000 ended up staying in Mexico. The rest were detained and deported.

Between Mexico’s northern border problem and its southern border problem, Mexico is caught in a difficult squeeze. The Mexican government of Felipe Calderón complains that its US counterpart does not sufficiently take into account the needs nor respect the human rights of Mexican immigrants. But at the same time, Mexican authorities are implicated in brutal repression against migrants from farther south…at the behest of the US government.

Survival strategy
The number of Mexicans in the United States is estimated at 11-12 million, with about half a million crossing each year. The Banco de México (Mexico’s central bank) claims that the real numbers are substantially larger than these official statistics, citing as evidence the fact that the population in a number of Mexican states has stopped growing despite no drop in the birth rate.

Migration’s impact on communities, particularly declining rural ones, is enormous. One window onto this is the family saga of our friend Angelina, a market woman in Michoacán’s capital city of Morelia who lives in an agricultural town about one hour to the north. Her aging father has gone to el otro lado repeatedly to work in agriculture, injuring himself on the job there in 2004. Her husband was crippled there in a car accident. One sister crossed illegally, only to be deported. Four other siblings are working in Texas and Rhode Island. Her son just went to join relatives in Ohio and do yarda work, a Spanglish word meaning landscaping. Millions of families across Mexico have similar stories.

Border wall or not, immigration reform or not, nobody in Mexico expects this to change soon. (The only noticeable changes in recent years have been increasing rates of immigration from Mexico’s more remote southern states, of women, and of unaccompanied children, many of them looking for their parents.)

The Banco de México projected in February that even if Mexico achieves a 5% annual growth rate (higher than it has seen since 2000), the pay differential will continue drawing migrants to the north “for two or three decades.” Héctor Rangel, the president of the board of Mexican bank BBVA Bancomer, remarked not long afterward that Mexico has been “unable to create the number of jobs necessary to hold onto our population.”

NAFTA has been a bust for most Mexicans. The current example of trucking is indicative. In early 2007, with much fanfare, the Mexican government announced that Mexican truck drivers could now haul their loads into the United States. But a couple of weeks into the pilot program, the Mexican trucking association demanded that the agreement be scrapped and a new one negotiated. With long delays at the border plus fines for “safety” infractions, the operators said the current agreement is worthless. But the problem goes well beyond trucking.

Overall, Mexico’s average wage level is only marginally beyond where it stood in 1994 when NAFTA went into effect, and slow economic growth has driven millions into informal sector jobs, ranging from selling on street corners to sewing in the home. The maquiladora (export assembly) industry grew over the 1990s, but then shrank as cost-conscious transnationals shifted sourcing to Central America or China.

Meanwhile, US agricultural imports such as poultry have swept the Mexican market, putting tens of thousands of small producers out of business. Looking ahead with dread to 2008, the deadline for removing all remaining restrictions on US corn, beans, and wheat (with low prices supported by US government subsidies), Mexican peasant associations and their allies have called for re-negotiating NAFTA, but the government remains staunchly pro-free-trade.

Perhaps the only “bright” spot, according to researcher Huberto Juárez of the Autonomous University of Puebla, is that as Mexican wages stagnate and Chinese wages grow, Mexico’s wage levels are becoming cost-competitive with Chinese ones in some manufacturing sectors. In this context, the remittances sent home by Mexico’s millions of migrants are vital not only for the economic survival of their families, but also for the economic survival of the country.

Migration is Mexico’s second largest source of export earnings (in this case, via the export of labor), yielding $24 billion US in 2006, second only to petroleum. But like Mexico’s oil, which is projected to run out in twenty years or so, remittances can form a deceptive cushion that allows the government to shirk its job-creation responsibilities-temporarily.

Raúl Delgado, director of the International Network on Migration and Development, criticizes governments of immigrant-sending countries for over-dependence on remittances at the expense of developing a well-rounded development policy “following alternative strategies” and “fighting to transform the asymmetrical and unjust relations that characterize the current global order.”

The southern border
If the pay difference is a magnet for Mexican migration, it is an even stronger magnet for people struggling to survive in the poorer Central American countries, which over the last twenty to thirty years have been ravaged by civil wars, hurricanes, free trade, and the global coffee glut. Deals between corrupt border guards and polleros (traffickers whom migrants pay to escort them across) make it easy to cross the border itself. But once in southern Mexico, immigrants from Central America or farther south are easy prey for those same polleros and police, along with maras (Salvadoran gangs active in the border area), Mexican organized crime, and freelance robbers and con men. Migrants with money can pay to travel north by car or even plane.

But most have no choice other than the train. The train in question starts in Arriaga, Chiapas, 180 miles north of the border. (It began at the border until Hurricane Stan devastated a long stretch of it in 2005.) Migrants must walk for ten dangerous days to reach Arriaga. If they succeed, they climb onto train cars, holding on any way they can. The rail voyage to the northern border takes another 10 to 12 days. That’s if everything goes right. But usually it doesn’t. In the 180-mile gauntlet from the border to Arriaga, in addition to deportation, migrants run the risk of extortion, robbery, assault, rape, and even murder.

According to first-hand accounts from migrants collected by film-maker Vericat, the perpretrators are often the uniformed police who are charged with enforcing immigration law. Thousands of women, mostly young Central American mothers with one or more children to support, many under 18, have been lured or forced into prostitution in the Soconusco border region of Chiapas when the option of going further north evaporated. Vericat reports that Soconusco has become the third largest center of prostitution in the world, behind only border regions in Brazil and Thailand.

And getting on the train does not mean they are home free, either. The train ride is exhausting and dangerous. Mounting or dismounting-or falling-from the moving train can cause serious injury or death. Police raids are frequent (the February 10, 2007 raid described in the introduction to this article targeted the train in Arriaga; reportedly there were 500 migrants aboard). In that raid, one woman fell under the train and lost a foot. And of course, the travelers must sometimes get off to get food, water, a little sleep in some place where they don’t have to hold on for dear life.

Apizaco, in the state of Tlaxcala where we are spending six months, marks the halfway point in the journey. The Casa del Migrante in Apizaco, a charitable organization that provides assistance with no questions asked, reports that migrants are often out of money and desperate. Confused, some of them make the tragic error of re-boarding the train heading south instead of north.

And of course, at the US border they face another set of obstacles. Even once on the job in the United States, they are not safe, as we saw in the March New Bedford, Massachusetts raid that nabbed hundreds of undocumented Central Americans. But many of those who are deported keep trying, again and again.

The immigration debates in Mexico
The policy discussion of immigration in Mexico is split. Looking north, everybody agrees that the US should allow more Mexicans to enter legally and that the border wall is a barbarity. Everybody recognizes the hypocrisy of the wealthy northern neighbor that depends on large numbers of Mexican laborers but insists on selectively enforcing a law that is completely out of step with reality. The only disagreement is between the Calderón administration, which is pressing the Bush administration in the most cautious of ways, and critics who call on the government to stand up more forcefully for opportunities for Mexicans.

The debate about the southern border is much more wide-open. Legislators from the center-to-right PRI and PAN parties, which make up a majority in congress, have called for stronger sanctions against undocumented immigrants from the south in phrases that could have come from US Republicans. But the government of Calderón (who was the PAN’s candidate for president) has announced plans to decriminalize illegal immigration (that is, deport them but don’t fine them, in order to decrease the incentives for extortion by officials) and to expand legal immigration channels, increasing the number of Guatemalans permitted to enter for agricultural work and issuing visas of up to five years for professional workers.

At the same time, they have promised the US government to tighten up the “porous” southern border, by means they have yet to specify. And Mexico’s federal agents continue to deal out violent treatment to migrants.

Meanwhile, a chain of Casas del Migrante located at strategic points in the migration from the south, such as Arriaga and Apizaco, offer temporary shelter, food, counseling, and small amounts of cash, defying legal restrictions. And many ordinary Mexicans offer the immigrants from the south a meal or place to sleep.

In a highly publicized case, María Concepción, who lives in a community along the south-north train where it passes through the central state of Querétaro, was recently sentenced to two years in prison for human trafficking after being caught feeding supper to six migrants from Honduras in 2005. The government claimed to have witnesses who testified that Concepción worked for pay with a network of traffickers. Concepción and her family members insist she was just offering charity, and that everybody in the community “would give them a taco or some water,” in the words of her daughter. Because they have concluded that for the government “it’s a crime even to give them a glass of water, now we don’t even give them a glass of water.”

But for most Mexicans, unlike the issue of the northern border, the issue of the southern border remains a bit remote. Arturo, a neighbor of ours in Tlaxcala who runs a laundromat, commented, “Mexico is just a ‘trampoline’ for the Central Americans, because there’s nothing for them here, no jobs.” Still, with the growing volume of migrants and increasing media coverage, there is growing consciousness of the human rights issues involved.

On a visit to the hospital, Arturo had met a Guatemalan who had fallen under the train in Apizaco. “The police picked him up and beat him. He was at the hospital, under armed guard, and once he was better they were going to deport him. That’s not fair, that’s a violation of human rights! If the man wants to work, let him try to get a job.”

Burning questions
The week leading up to Easter is a time of school vacations and colorful celebrations all across Mexico-not a time when many are thinking about the grim issues of immigration. But we saw the issues flare up-literally-at the Holy Saturday celebration (the night before Easter) in San Cristobal, Chiapas, about 80 miles from Arriaga as the crow flies. Mexico has a Holy Saturday tradition of burning los Judas, papier-mâché dummies named after Judas, often crammed with fireworks and representing the ills and evils the community would like to purge.

San Cristobal hosts an annual Judas contest. This year the competition was brisk, with two effigies of George Bush (one as a rat, the other as a sea monster), two of President Calderón, two of environmental pollution and global warming, and two of a Grim Reaper-like figure of Abortion (conservative Mexicans are appalled that Mexico City is on the verge of decriminalizing abortion), among others.

But the winner was “El muro de la vergüenza” (the wall of shame), as Mexicans call the barrier the United States is erecting along the border. Less noticed, however, was an evocative sculpture showing a faceless figure with a club beating down a second faceless figure who was trying to clamber up onto a boxcar. “The plight of the Central American immigrant” said a simple label scrawled in chalk.

We watched as they lit up the boxcar. The flames leaped up, the fireworks shot off, but as the fire died down again the crowd could see that the figures and the boxcar were still there. The celebrants tried twice more to relight the Judas, but it stubbornly refused to be consumed, and they finally gave up and moved on to the next one. For Mexico as for the United States, the treatment of migrants from the south will not be an easy Judas to burn.

For more information pleasse see Isabel Vericat, “La otra frontera (México-Guatemala)”, Jornada Semanal, March 4, 2007 and the Casas del Migrante-Scalabrini web site.

This is the latest piece in an occasional series from longtime Grassroots advisors Chris Tilly and Marie Kenned, who are currently working and writing in Mexico .

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