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10 percent of mexicans work in america { May 21 2006 }

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Give and take across the border
1 in 7 Mexican workers migrates -- most send money home
- Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau
Sunday, May 21, 2006

Washington -- The current migration of Mexicans and Central Americans to the United States is one of the largest diasporas in modern history, experts say.

Roughly 10 percent of Mexico's population of about 107 million is now living in the United States, estimates show. About 15 percent of Mexico's labor force is working in the United States. One in every 7 Mexican workers migrates to the United States.

Mass migration from Mexico began more than a century ago. It is deeply embedded in the history, culture and economies of both nations. The current wave began with Mexico's economic crisis in 1982, accelerated sharply in the 1990s with the U.S. economic boom, and today has reached record dimensions.

It is unlikely to ebb anytime soon.

"There is no scenario outside of catastrophic attack on the United States that would make immigration stop," said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

The fierce immigration debate now under way in Congress focuses almost exclusively on the U.S. side of the equation. Senate legislation attempts to reduce the flow by hardening the border, sanctioning employers who hire illegal migrants, and expanding avenues for legal immigration. The House passed a bill focused solely on U.S. enforcement.

Yet whatever the United States decides about immigration will have a huge impacton its closest neighbors, especially Mexico.

What happens in Mexico, by turn, has a big effect on immigration flows to the United States. Those events include a hotly contested election six weeks away that pits a leftist populist against a market-oriented heir to President Vicente Fox.

"We want Mexico to look like Canada," said Stephen Haber, director of Stanford University's Social Science History Institute and a Latin America specialist at the Hoover Institution. "That's the optimal for the United States. We never talk about instability in Canada. We're never concerned about a Canadian security problem. Because Canada is wealthy and stable. It's so wealthy and stable we barely know it's there most of the time. That's the optimal for Mexico: a wealthy and stable country."

What isn't wanted, Haber said, "is an unstable country on your border, especially an unstable country that hates you."

Three-quarters of the estimated 12 million illegal migrants in the United States come from Mexico and Central America. Mexicans make up 56 percent of the unauthorized U.S. migrant population, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Another 22 percent come from elsewhere in Latin America, mainly Central America and the Andean countries. These same countries send many of the half-million new illegal immigrants who arrive each year.

Migration is profoundly altering Mexico and Central America. Entire rural communities are nearly bereft of working-age men. The town of Tendeparacua, in the Mexican state of Michoacan, had 6,000 residents in 1985, and now has 600, according to news reports. In five Mexican states, the money migrants send home exceeds locally generated income, one study found.

Last year, Mexico received a record $20 billion in remittances from migrant workers. That is equal to Mexico's 2004 income from oil exports and dwarfing tourism revenue.

Arriving in small monthly transfers of $100 and $200, remittances have formed a vast river of "migra-dollars" that now exceeds lending by multilateral development agencies and foreign direct investment combined, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

The money Mexican migrants send home almost equals the U.S. foreign aid budget for the entire world, said Arturo Valenzuela, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University and former head of Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

"Where are we going to come up with $20 billion?" to ensure stability in Mexico, Valenzuela asked at a recent conference. "Has anybody in the raging immigration debate over the last few weeks thought, could it be good for the fundamental interests of the United States ... to serve as something of a safety valve for those that can't be employed in Mexico?"

Migration has caused significant social disruption in Mexico, though research is scant, said B. Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University.

"We do know that it can break up families, and has done so in many traditional sending areas," he said. "The husband comes to the United States and stays for many years. His wife is on her own with the children. In some cases, the couple comes to the United States and leaves their children behind with relatives."

The migration is driven in part, experts say, by the large income differentials between the two nations. A rural Latin American migrant may earn 10 times in the United States what he or she can earn at home.

But an equally intense pull comes from U.S. employers, including private households, who employ large numbers of illegal immigrants as nannies, housekeepers and caregivers, said Jeffery Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center.

The U.S. information economy has created a split labor market, one with a powerful demand for high- and low-skilled workers, economists say.

While U.S. professionals toil in office buildings, others come to clean their offices, prepare their food and provide the host of services that support modern life. In a bygone era, teenagers, women and rural U.S. migrants filled these jobs. The U.S. labor market offers opportunities to "a younger, vibrant labor force and Mexican immigration has been filling that void," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the Mexico Project for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

U.S. demand has driven a record increase in wages for newly arrived immigrants, about 30 percent between 1994 and 2000, according to Lowell. The migration has also raised average wages in Mexico by 8 to 9 percent, economists estimate. As the first U.S. Baby Boomers turn 60 this year, this demand is only expected to intensify.

Once migration starts, social and economic networks sustain and fuel it, which explains in part why flows have not fallen despite solid economic growth in Mexico.

Most illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America have not completed high school, although education levels are rising. Harvard economist George Borjas found that in 2000, 63 percent of Mexican immigrants had not finished high school.

New immigrants are much more broadly dispersed than previous waves. A lower percentage are going to the traditional magnet states such as California and New York. The fastest-growing destinations for new arrivals, according to demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution, are North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, Iowa and Nebraska.

This geographic dispersal may account in part for rising public discontent over immigration, many believe. Migrant workers have also shifted from the fields to the cities, working in hotels, restaurants and construction, where they are more visible to the public.

Mexico is aging too, which will eventually cause migration to ebb. Its population trails the U.S. age profile by 30 years. By then, demographers expect Mexico may be importing labor.

While migration has long served as a safety valve for Mexico, the current wave may also be hindering the political and economic reforms that most agree are needed -- in education, taxes, energy, agriculture and law, where systemic corruption is a serious barrier to growth.

"The good news is that a million Mexicans were on the street recently demanding good jobs and good government and justice," Roger Noriega, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told a recent panel at the American Enterprise Institute. "The bad news is they were marching in someone else's country. Every day, thousands of Mexico's most industrious people leave their families behind ... leading many to wonder why Mexico's political class is not capable of creating economic opportunity for its citizens in a land rich in mineral wealth, hydrocarbons, agricultural potential and human capital."

The United States is not the only country that shares a long land border with a poorer nation. So does Germany, with Poland. France once did with Spain. Many point to Europe's unification as a better way to integrate the North American economies without disruptive migration flows.

Before the European Union opened its labor markets, its wealthier countries invested billions of dollars to develop the economies of its poorer members -- at the time, Spain, Portugal and Greece -- that had been sending migrants abroad. Since then, Spain has become the economic engine of Europe, and this month opened its labor market to Poland. The Irish, who once fled economic calamity by the millions to the United States, are today having their gas pumped by Eastern Europeans.

Many contend that U.S. investment in Mexico would be less expensive and more effective than a wall. Poorly developed Mexican credit markets make it all but impossible for a low-income family to get a mortgage.

If, when the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994, "the United States had approached Mexico and its integration into the North American economy in the same way that the European Union approached Spain and Portugal in 1986, we wouldn't have an immigration problem now," said Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey, co-director of the Mexican Migration Project, a survey of Mexican migrants.

Given the predominance of Mexicans and Central Americans in illegal immigration to the United States, Papademetriou wonders why the Senate's guest worker program would be open to all comers, if it is intended to provide temporary workers for the U.S. market.

"If 60 percent of our illegal immigration comes from a single country, and another 20 percent comes through that country, logic would say the vast majority of visas should go to the country of origin," he said. "The last thing you would do is create a global temporary worker program, as if somehow we should need Bangladeshis or Russians to pick our fruits and vegetables."

Targeted visas could also leverage Mexican cooperation in undertaking politically difficult reforms, and would be more likely to keep guest workers temporary. "You keep it a neighborhood project," Papademetriou said, "so you have people going back and forth visiting their families, not spending thousands of dollars to come from all over the Earth. People who already have a network in place that will support them in the United States, that will help them find jobs."

Given that Mexico is the second-largest U.S. trading partner, the two nations' economic integration is well under way, and labor is part of that, experts say.

Even a new wall -- already under construction on the border with Mexico with bits of triple fencing here and pieces of National Guard units there -- has not stopped migrants entering yet and probably works more to trap them in the United States, many believe.

"These are human beings," said Audrey Singer, an immigration expert at the Brookings Institution. "It's not like a water faucet we can turn on and off. I think of managing them better -- because it's very hard to stop them."

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