Tiny Tamaula is the new face of rural Mexico: Villagers are home again as the illegal immigration boom drops to net zero
By Sara Miller Llana, Christian Science Monitor Staff writer / April 8, 2012
At this time of year in this tiny rural outpost that sits on a mountainside in Guanajuato State, most able-bodied men are gone. They’re off plucking and cutting chicken in processing plants in Georgia or pruning the backyards of Seattle.
But this year, Pedro Laguna and his wife, Silvia Arellano, are clearing rocks from their yard to prepare a field for corn. They’ve returned home to Tamaula, Mexico, with their four young children, after 20 years in the United States working illegally. Pedro’s cousin Jorge Laguna and his brothers are planting garbanzo beans in the plot behind their father’s home. Their next-door neighbor Gregorio Zambrano is also home: One recent morning he badgered a visiting social worker for funds to start a honey-production enterprise.
Since the Monitor last visited here in 2007, a major demographic shift has transformed this dusty village of 230. Migrants have come home, and with them have come other important changes. In 2007, there was no running water, no high school, no paved roads. A simple water pipeline, installed in February, runs to each of the 50-some homes. On a recent day the first high school class, including eight students ages 15 to 40, was finishing up math homework. And now, the main roads are paved.
“We can turn on the water and wash our clothes,” says Pedro’s uncle, Rodolfo Laguna, who spent 12 years working illegally in a chicken plant in Athens, Ga., before returning home in 2010 after both he and his son lost their jobs.
This is the new face of rural Mexico. Villages emptied out in the 1980s and ’90s in one of the largest waves of migration in history. Today there are clear signs that a human tide is returning to towns both small and large across Mexico.
One million Mexicans said they returned from the US between 2005 and 2010, according to a new demographic study of Mexican census data. That’s three times the number who said they’d returned in the previous five-year period.
And they aren’t just home for a visit: One prominent sociologist in the US has counted “net zero” migration for the first time since the 1960s.
Experts say the implications for both nations are enormous – from the draining of a labor pool in the US to the need for a radical shift in policies in Mexico, which has long depended on the billions of dollars in migrant remittances as a social welfare cornerstone.
“The massive return of migrants will have implications at the micro and macro economic levels and will have consequences for the social fabric … especially for the structure of the Mexican family,” says Rodolfo Casillas, a migration expert at the Latin American School of Social Sciences in Mexico City.
The trend began with a weaker economy in the US. But even if a stronger one were to pull many Mexicans back to the US, the new pattern could persist. Migrants – and the experts who study them – say they are deterred by state laws in the US that have fueled anti-immigrant sentiment, tougher US-border enforcement, and border violence.
So, many Mexicans simply stay put. And now, the human calculus of possibility means they can stay put – or at least are more able to than their parents, who turned the US-Mexican border corridor into the busiest in the world. Today in Mexico there is greater access to education, growing per capita income, and lower fertility rates – all making a life here more viable. In turn, a life in the shadows of the US, separated from family often for years, is less palatable.
“The calculation is finally making people come back and decide to stay in Mexico,” says Agustin Escobar, a demographer at the Center for Research in Social Anthropology in Guadalajara, Mexico.
‘Net zero’ migration
While the loud immigration controversy of recent years – with walls erected and sheriffs planning anti-immigrant armies – got the headlines, the powerful migration shift went on largely unnoticed.
Pedro Laguna’s odyssey is a clear and common sign of the reverse calculus on the ground.
At the macroeconomic level, Douglas Massey, founder of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University, has documented what he calls “net zero” migration. The population of undocumented immigrants in the US fell from 12 million to approximately 11 million during the height of the financial crisis (2008-09), he says. And since then, Mexicans without documents aren’t migrating at rates to replace the loss, creating a net zero balance for the first time in 50 years.
Mexican census and household surveys analyzed by Mr. Escobar, who is with the Binational Study on Mexican Migration, suggest migrants leaving Mexico fell from more than a million in 2005 to 368,000 in 2010.
Pedro Laguna contributed to that shift in balance when he moved from Georgia to Tamaula last summer with his wife and American-born children – ages 5, 7, 9, and 11 – after 20 years in the US.
By many measures, the Lagunas were pleased with American life. In their first US jobs – in poultry processing – they earned in two hours what they could earn in a day in Mexico (less than $15). They liked the rigorous schools, and their kids excelled – today their bookshelves are full of trophies from science, reading, and karate contests.
But with both parents working long hours, and on different shifts, “we were working the whole time,” says Silvia, who often got just three hours of sleep a day.
Yet amid the financial crisis, something worse than the slog befell them: Plentiful jobs for illegals disappeared. Silvia lost her job at a plastic factory, which gave her more time with the kids. But Pedro’s weekly pay of $340 from his construction job wasn’t enough.
And the feeling of welcome changed, too. Beginning with Arizona, states began passing laws to crack down on illegal immigration. Tales of Mexicans sent home after getting stopped for speeding spread, and it even touched home: One family member was sent home to Tamaula, after being caught driving without a license, while his wife and children continue to live in Georgia. Desperate to avoid the same fate, Pedro stopped driving on national holidays to avoid police checks.
As their quality of life deteriorated, Pedro started hearing about changes in Tamaula: There was electricity, a high school, access to water. Though his children were thriving, he figured they were still young enough to uproot willingly. He wanted them to connect with their roots and see how hard life is in Mexico. They could later decide if they wanted to return to the US as legal citizens.
With their savings, the couple moved into a tidy, stone-walled home they’d been slowly constructing in Tamaula over the years. They knew they’d give up the security of paychecks, but they could grow their own food, raise goats for milk and cheese, and forgo rent and expensive energy bills.
When the family crossed the border in a van from Brownsville, Texas, in June, near where Pedro sneaked across the Rio Grande illegally in 1992 at night, it was the first time the children had ever stepped on Mexican soil.
It’s been up and down, says Pedro: “I ask myself all the time if this was the right decision.”
‘American dream’ no longer the standard
Guanajuato – an agricultural state in Central Mexico – has been a typical emigration state and in the past five years has become the biggest source of Mexican migrants to the US. As such, it also has one of the highest rates of return, census figures show.
Of Tamaula’s 100 men, about 10 have returned since 2007 – some willingly, like Pedro, and others because they lost jobs or didn’t get guest-worker visas and are no longer willing to go north illegally.
Not a single person interviewed in Tamaula said he or she would go illegally today. One of them is Jorge Laguna, a cousin of Pedro’s in Tamaula, a town made up of three extended families. He’d traveled annually to the US since 2005 as a temporary guest worker to toil as a gardener in Washington State, but this year he wasn’t asked back.
In the past he might have tried his luck illegally – as he did when he was 15, spending five consecutive years in Georgia before returning home to visit his family. What was there to lose? If he got caught crossing, he could turn around and try again. If he couldn’t find a job, he could come home or bide his time until the market rebounded. Now, at 28, he says he’s not willing to risk his life: Migrants – including two from a nearby village – have gone missing. Their suitcases showed up at bus stations in northern Mexico.
“The situation would have to be really dire for me to try to go illegally today,” Jorge says. Staying home is much easier, he concedes, than when his father was raising a family. At that time, all travel here was by foot or horseback. Until 2005, when the town got electricity, children did their homework by candlelight. And back then water was the central concern of daily life: With one well up the mountainside, a half-hour by donkey, families could rarely return with enough for drinking, bathing, feeding the animals, and washing clothes and dishes.
Suddenly plugged in to modern conveniences, the community has been able to turn its attention beyond subsistence to bettering opportunities. The new high school was built three years ago. (Before, most usually quit school after junior high.)
As a strategy to keep Mexicans home, the Community Foundation of the Bajio focuses on local development in 10 communities in Guanajuato, including Tamaula. The nongovernmental organization is busy creating employment opportunities for residents to produce and sell honey – as Mr. Zambrano is trying to do – baked goods, and goat cheese.
No such opportunities – nor the mind-set that goes with them – existed when Jorge was finishing up elementary school in the 1990s. Migration was the fastest ticket to social mobility, not school. So by the time he turned 15 it was logical – even expected – that he go north.
Now, beyond changes in infrastructure, his hometown’s attitude is different. His younger sister is in university, studying psychology, and his 17-year-old brother, Juan, is in high school studying computing.
Going north is inconceivable to Juan: “My friends and I don’t talk about the ‘American dream.’ In that sense the mentality has changed. Instead we talk about opening up a restaurant here, or doing something different.”
Jorge, too, harbors dreams of establishing an enterprise in Tamaula “to support my family and not be so dependent on the US.”
Seven kids no longer the family norm
Tamaula is not an anomaly: Like other towns across Mexico, it has been buoyed by the nation’s overall positive economic, educational, and demographic currents.
“People are recovering the hope that they can stay in their own communities and don’t see going to the US as their only opportunity,” observes Adriana Cortes, who runs the Community Foundation of the Bajio.
The high school here in Tamaula is one of hundreds built with federal funds nationwide in the past five years as enrollment rates have gone up from 54 percent in 1991 to 87 percent in 2009 for secondary school. Higher education enrollment rose from 15 percent to 27 percent in that same period, according to UNESCO.
Although quality lags behind other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, test scores have improved and dropout rates are down.
“They have made sure there are teachers everywhere. They may not be the best teachers in the world, but there are schools everywhere. They have done the right thing at the very basic level,” says Harry Patrinos, lead education economist at the World Bank.
Fertility rates have also dropped precipitously in the past half century. Women had, on average, nearly seven children in 1960; today the average is slightly more than two, according to the UN Population Division.
That, say demographers and economists, will deflate labor supply to the US in the future. But more immediately it means that more wealth is spread over fewer family members, in effect raising incomes and allowing families to invest more in their children’s social mobility.
Mexico has transformed from a relatively poor country to one that is largely “middle class” in attitude and consumption, reports Luis Rubio in “Mexico: A Middle Class Society,” which he co-wrote. The report links this, among other factors, to fertility rates, trade openness to cheap imports, and new access to credit. “That is why there are so many Wal-Marts everywhere,” Mr. Rubio says.
But another factor that has helped reduce poverty is remittances. Migrants abroad sent $21.27 billion back home in 2010, according to Mexico’s central bank. And while Mexico has long developed programs to take advantage of such resources, with its 3-for-1 program, for example, which matches funds sent back to communities for local development, it is not prepared for a sustained change in migration patterns, says Rodolfo Zamora Garcia, an economist in Zacatecas State who studies migration and remittances.
“There is no public policy in Mexico to address the massive return of migrants or the reinsertion of them back into their communities,” says Mr. Zamora.
Migrants who return with savings can bring back skills and become agents of change, says Carla Pederzini, a demographer at the Iberoamericana University in Mexico City. But if they’re deported or return because they are jobless, she adds, they’re vulnerable. “It’s very hard for them to start a new life.”
While about two-thirds of returning migrants – the majority between ages 18 and 34 – find work within three months of returning, at least a third work in the informal sector. Most do not return with sufficient funds to become employers or small-business owners, according to research on the characteristics of returning migrants by Foundation BBVA Bancomer in Mexico. And most do not end up using the skills they acquired during their time in the US.
In the wake of the global financial crisis, Mexican states began offering support to migrants, from unemployment insurance for those who lost their American jobs to funds to help migrants create microenterprises.
Guanajuato set up a fund in 2009 that has helped 180 families, says Luis Vargas Gutierrez, the undersecretary for social development in Guanajuato State. “After the crisis, we thought lots of migrants were going to return home.” So far, he says, the state hasn’t seen the influx that was anticipated. He says that while Guanajuato residents face high rates of deportation – more than 30,000 were repatriated from the US in 2011 – many are staying at the border.
But the challenge of returning could be bigger than it appears, says the demographer Escobar. “[Returning migrants] are being absorbed one by one. It doesn’t look like a major movement,” he says.
While per capita income has grown by 40 percent in two decades, Mexico saw a bump in poverty levels between 2008 and 2010, and Escobar attributes that, in part, to Mexican families having to absorb returning migrants.
Reverse migration benefits families
Despite the challenges of the new migration patterns, the biggest beneficiary, says Escobar, will be the Mexican family.
“In high emigration communities, where children had traditionally been socialized to leave at any early age, the notion that children should be educated to make it in Mexico places greater emphasis on education, on investing in one’s properties and assets in Mexico, and in general in the kind of values that are consistent with a commitment to the future of these communities,” he says.Indeed, for Pedro and Silvia, it was their family that drove their decision to move home.
“We never saw the children,” says Silvia. “They grow up so fast; soon they will be independent and leave.”
But for them, and for thousands of other migrants, this isn’t a choice between good and bad or right and wrong. It’s a crushingly hard cost analysis. Pedro says some days their children’s teacher doesn’t show up to class, and other parents don’t demand higher standards as they would in the US. It makes him second-guess his decision: “I worry I am impeding their growth.”
On a recent Saturday morning the kids did extra homework assigned by their parents at the dinner table. They wrote letters in English to maintain their bilingual skills. Their 9-year-old wrote to her best friend back in the US: “We have animals. Mexico is so beautiful, but it is not like over there.”
• Lourdes Medrano contributed to this article from Phoenix.