Mexicans Are Pouring Back Into U.S. After Leaving Years Earlier
(Bloomberg) -- Swelling numbers of Mexicans are heading north across the border, propelled by a deep economic crash and drawn by promises of a stimulus-fueled resurgence in the U.S.
Since the middle of last year, the number of monthly apprehensions at the southern border of working-age Mexicans traveling without children has more than doubled to around 40,000, from fewer than 16,000 during the prior two years, in part because of repeat attempts, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. If the rate keeps up, 2021 could see the most Mexican apprehensions in a decade.
The increase has been largely ignored as the Biden administration struggles with a wave of unaccompanied children and families from Central America seeking asylum after the end of the Trump administration. The influx increases the challenge for President Joe Biden, who is searching for a solution to a decades-old political puzzle, and accentuates the economic crisis faced by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whose government has done little to cushion the blow of Covid-19.
Apprehensions of Mexicans at the U.S. border declined steeply from the late 1990s and early 2000s, but began to climb back in 2018. Then the coronavirus crisis hit Mexico, crippling the economy. Meanwhile, the U.S. passed Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief plan, and a new generation of Mexican residents began weighing the painful decision to leave home and family behind.
Jose Granadino’s sons made it across. Ramiro, 20, was helping pay for his agronomy degree by working as a sound engineer for events around the family’s home near Ixmiquilpan, about 70 miles north of Mexico City. But the pandemic killed the quinceanera and wedding-party scene, and Ramiro decided the U.S. was his best option. He left in October.
“He started to get desperate,” Granadino, 43, who himself went to Florida when he was just 16, said of Ramiro. “He said, ‘I want to improve myself, I want to do something.’”
Granadino did his best to discourage his sons, but their uncles in Oklahoma told Ramiro about plentiful work, even during the pandemic. Ramiro survived a 10-day journey through the desert. Within a month, emboldened by his brother’s success, Granadino’s 23-year-old son followed. They are now working double shifts at bakeries and restaurants in Tulsa.
“Every time there is an economic crisis in the United States, undocumented workers play a key part in the recovery, because they are the cheapest to hire and are willing to work in the most adverse conditions,” said Jorge Santibanez, the president of Washington’s Mexa Institute, which studies Mexican communities in the U.S.
Most Mexicans caught at the border are adults traveling without children, and the number of multiple attempts at crossing is up sharply from previous years. That’s largely due to a U.S. policy of sending people back to Mexico in hours instead of formally deporting them.
While a precise count of people crossing without authorization is impossible, data suggest that migration is on the rise, said Luis Calva, an expert at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. “It may accelerate due to the economic crisis in Mexico if the demand for employment in the U.S. also increases,” he said.
In the past two decades, the rate of Mexican migration to the U.S. had fallen, amid improved opportunities back home, financial support by people already settled abroad, a shift to smaller families and the increased danger of crossing. But coronavirus shutdowns sank Mexico into its deepest recession since the Great Depression last year.
Lopez Obrador has refused to fund major fiscal stimulus. He argued past bailouts during crises failed, helping only the elite. For those who lost their jobs, there was no emergency unemployment program. The vast informal economy of street merchants was hobbled, tourism withered and salaried jobs with benefits vaporized.
On Sunday, about a quarter of Ixmiquilpan’s market stalls were shuttered. The barbacoa stand was finally getting back to normal, but women selling chiles and honey said sales were less than half than before the pandemic.
In the past 30 years, the region has been transformed by immigration, which split families and formed new extensions of communities in the U.S. Migrants started heading north in the 1980s, and there are now thousands concentrated around Clearwater, Florida, near Tampa. The region depends on the money they make, and remittances totaled $160 million last year.
Many stayed in the U.S. only five or 10 years, saving enough to build their own house in Mexico, buy a truck and a tractor or start a business. Others remained, leaving rocky fields at home dotted with half-finished or unoccupied U.S.-style dwellings built with money sent home.
The pandemic hit just as many children of the first migrant generation came of age.
Benigno Nonthe’s youngest son, Lauro, finished high school and left four months ago. Lauro liked to watch internet videos about the rich and famous. He read Henry Ford’s autobiography, personal-finance bestsellers like “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” and idolized Michael Jordan and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. Lauro’s older siblings had all gotten jobs as professionals around Ixmiquilpan, but he told his father, “You only go to school to become an employee.”
Lauro wanted to be a boss, and his plan was to accumulate savings in the U.S. and make something of himself. Nonthe, who was working Sunday using a tractor he bought with money made in Florida years ago, tried to warn his son of the risks.
“He was determined to succeed,” Nonthe said. “Sometimes you have to let the fear go. When he returns, he will have a lot to tell.”
Nonthe isn’t even sure which state his son is in, but he has found plenty of work in construction. Many U.S. low-wage industries where immigrants work were hard hit. But construction, which relies heavily on unauthorized migrants, shrank less. While non-farm employment fell about 6% from February 2020 to February 2021, construction fell only 3.8%.
“What drives migration is relative conditions between Mexico and the United States,” said Brian Cadena, an economist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies immigrant labor. “It is not just booms that matter, it is also being hit less hard by a similar shock. If the U.S. is weathering the pandemic relatively well in terms of what the labor market looks like, that is going to continue to drive migration.”
That U.S. hunger for labor is growing even as Republicans have seized on immigration and asylum as weapons to wield against Biden. Members of the party have said Biden created a crisis by easing Trump’s rules and using more welcoming rhetoric — even though most of the previous administration’s policies remain in place. White House officials will travel to Mexico and Guatemala this week for talks on stemming the flow.
Santibanez of the Mexa Institute said U.S. employers provide the pull, because they crave labor that’s “diligent, cheap, and available.”
“Businesses that are trying to recover say to the cook, the handyman, or a construction worker, ‘Get me a cousin of yours or a brother,’” Santibanez said. “That’s what gets people to go.”
In Mexico, Fabian Morales, the head of Guerrero state’s office for migrant issues, said he was unsure whether migration was picking up. But in the past three months alone, at least five migrants from his state died near the U.S.-Mexico border and their bodies had to be sent home.
“In Mexico, there’s not any help from the governments, which means that the situation in places like Guerrero, or in Mexico more generally, has been far worse than in the U.S.,” Morales said. “People have had to find a way to help their families.”
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