July 2006

Poverty drives immigrants: Mexicans seek survival not just a better life

By Phil Hall

This is the second article in a two-part series.

Victor and Magdelena “Maggie” Nuñez are an American success story. They own two restaurants in Montezuma County, one in Cortez and one in Dolores. They serve Mexican and American food.

They have three children, all citizens. They, too, are citizens. They came to the United States separately, met, fell in love, married, and worked hard to achieve the American dream. They are both from Mexico. They both speak English, although it is their second language.

Victor came to the U.S. in 1980 from the lovely state of Nayarit. He crossed the border at a place called La Libertad, “liberty,” hidden in the bed of a dump truck.

“There were about 2,000 people waiting there,” he said, “trying to get across the border.”

Maggie came across 18 years ago. Her coyote was a woman. “She said ‘walk now’ and I walked across the border.”

Maggie has family in Southern California and it was her sister who gave her the initial encouragement to try her hand at being an American.

“At first,” Maggie said, “I just came to see it. I was going to stay for a month and then go back home. I didn’t want to leave my mama. But my sister talked me into staying. She talked me into getting my first job, and that’s where I met Victor. He and I were the only ones in the restaurant who spoke Spanish.”

“In 1981 the U.S. had an amnesty,” Victor said. “My boss helped me with the paperwork. Then when Maggie and I got married we got her paperwork too. We were termed ‘permanent residents’ at that time. After five years we became eligible to apply for citizenship, and we did. We are both citizens, and all of our children were born here.”

They worked for other people, they had their own restaurant in southern California, they owned a bakery, they had a landscaping business. It was their children who got them to Colorado.

“One of the kids brought home a book from the library,” she said, “and it had pictures of the mountains of Colorado, and the snow.”

“Mom, why can’t we go to Colorado to live?” they said.

And so they did.

A living wage

“One likely consequence [of NAFTA] is an acceleration of migration from rural to urban areas as Mexican corn producers are wiped out by U.S. agribusiness, depressing still further wages that have already dropped sharply in recent years and are likely to remain low, thanks to the harsh repression that is a crucial element of the highly touted Mexican ‘economic miracle’.” — Noam Chomsky

People come to the United States from south of the border not merely for a better life, but for survival.

A decade ago I drove down to San Antonio for a small reunion with my siblings. I took my golf clubs, stopping and hitting golf balls on a variety of scruffy driving ranges.

In Del Rio, Texas, I ran into three Anglo guys on a public course and they invited me to join them. They were managers for one of the maquiladora factories across the border, where Mexican workers were sewing seat covers for Ford trucks. One of these men was the plant manager. He told me that Mexican laborers were making $26 per week standing on their feet all day, six days a week. That’s $1,352 a year. I have a hard time believing this. But even harder to believe is that even those jobs are being “outsourced” to Asian countries.

The women who work in the maquiladoras get up in the dark at 4 in the morning and walk to their jobs. In Juárez they are frequently beaten, raped and murdered.

Many Mexican households earn less than $4,100 per year, according to the Wall Street Journal. Yet the cost of living in Mexico is not cheap. Gasoline costs as much as it does in the United States, and everything in Mexico moves by truck.

The only thing cheap in Mexico is Mexican labor.

I traveled down the Pacific Coast of Mexico last winter and talked to the campesinos who work the fields in the rich farmlands of Sinaloa. They make 100 pesos per day — less than $10. That’s working all day in the fields, bent double.

“In the poorer parts of Mexico people work for $5 per day,” said Victor Nuñez.

It’s understandable, then, that more and more Mexicans risk their lives trying to cross illegally into the United States.

When Maggie Nuñez walked across the border, she was very young. She paid a coyote, someone who guides illegal immigrants, to take her. It cost her about $250. Now the cost of the coyote is $2,000 to $4,000. And there are no guarantees; the risks are high. But the Mexicans continue to come. Workers in the construction trade in Colorado typically make $10 per hour, according to Mexican laborers working in the U.S. with whom I have spoken. That amounts to $20,000 to $25,000 a year at 40 to 50 hours a week.

One contractor told me: “Mexicans will work nights, weekends — they don’t care, and they don’t get overtime pay.” They also don’t get benefits.

In Guerrero, Chihuahua, I had a flat tire on my motorcycle. While looking for a tire-repair shop I saw a middleaged gentleman in a pickup truck.

“Disculpe, señor, pero yo tengo un problema con mi llanta de moto,” I said in my bad Spanish.

“What is the problem with your motorcycle tire?” he asked in good English.

“It is flat,” I told him.

“What do you want to do about it?” he asked. “You want to fix it, or you want to ride it like that?”

I laughed. Jeez, I love Mexico at moments like this.

“Get in,” he said.

As we drove, I asked him where he’d learned to speak English.

“I worked for 15 years in a dairy in Phoenix,” he said. He saved his money, came back to Chihuahua and started his own business.

“How many cattle do you have?” I asked.

“Forty-nine,” he said. “Good ones.”

“How did you like the U.S.?”

“I liked it OK,” he said, “but this is my home. Your government takes much in taxes,” he added.

‘Afraid to return home’

This was a statement I heard again and again in Mexico. I met Mexicans who came to the U.S. to work and returned to Mexico, and others who planned to return to the U.S. Some Mexican men I talked to claimed to have families in both countries.

“It’s impossible for Mexicans to enter the U.S. legally,” said Eddie Soto, director of Los Compañeros, a human-rights advocacy group serving under the umbrella of the San Juan Citizens Alliance in Durango. “We allow 5,000 work visas per year.

“In the 1980s there were no coyotes,” he said. “There were open borders. Mexicans would come to the U.S., work for a while, and return home. Now people are afraid to return home because they will not be able to get back into the U.S. They are stuck here.”

A big part of this complex conundrum is NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), which puts the advantages of “free trade” in the hands of the big, transnational corporations.

As a result, the Mexican poor are fighting the same battles Emiliano Zapata and Francisco Villa were fighting 100 years ago: land reform, education, health care for the campesinos.

In 1970 Mexico City was the size of New York City, 7.5 million people. Now Mexico City is the largest city in the world, more than 18 million.

Where did all of these people come from? From the campo, from the family farm, from the little villages of Mexico. They came to drive taxis (Oh, God, help me never to get into another of their cabs!), wash dishes, wash clothes, sweep streets, prune trees — anything at all so they can eat.

Land of diversity

Intel Founder Andy Grove is an immigrant, according to USA Today. “When Grove was a boy, his Jewish family fled Soviet-dominated Hungary and landed in New York,” says an article by Kevin Maney. “He says the USA was a beacon of opportunity, freedom and tolerance. . . . In 1960 Grove got an engineering degree from City College of New York; in 2005 he donated $26 million to the college.”

But as the U.S. population increases and concerns about the influx of Mexicans intensify, U.S. citizens are less welcoming toward newcomers, especially those here illegally.

“At the beginning of this [20th] century, the border of Mexico and the United States was almost a nothing to both nations. Now it is a scream that disturbs the sleep of the rulers in their various palaces,” Charles Bowden writes in “Juárez: The Laboratory of Our Future.”

America is a land of diversity. People from all over the world have come here. An estimated 12 million are in the country illegally, maybe more. The government doesn’t really know — a fact that makes officials extremely nervous about national security.

This winter, officials in California, just across the border from Tijuana, discovered the existence of a tunnel that ran from Mexico into the United States. They have no idea how long it has been there. How many Mexicans have been smuggled through that tunnel? How many tons of drugs? How many other tunnels exist?

Political football

U.S. Highway 191 is a main corridor for Mexican illegals coming into the United States, and it passes right through San Juan County, Utah. But local officers aren’t authorized to enforce federal laws. The regional Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office is in Provo, Utah, but according to local officials ICE authorities are seldom willing to come down to Blanding to take the apprehended immigrants, so they are released.

According to Los Compañeros’ Soto, ICE wanted to build a detention facility in Durango, but local opposition squelched the idea.

“Most people in Durango are very supportive and accepting of new immigrants,” Soto said. “Immigration has been very positive here. We need people in construction and the service industries.”

There is an “immigrant-friendly” city resolution in Durango so that police officers do not ask people about their immigrant status.

“If immigrants are afraid they’ll be reported to the INS, they won’t cooperate in criminal investigations,” Soto said. “They won’t report crime.”

However, a bill passed by the state legislature in Colorado this year forbids local governments from enacting such “sanctuary” policies, and mandates that peace officers who think someone may be an illegal immigrant report him to ICE. Sheriffs have expressed concern, saying they are being asked to do the job of federal authorities.

The U.S. Congress balked at passing any immigration bill this summer. “It looks like they are going to play political football with it,” Soto said.

Meanwhile, Mexicans tramp through the desert, some of them dying. Human-rights groups have set out water barrels at key locations; some have been vandalized.

“Someone is finding the barrels and shooting holes in them,” Soto said. “We don’t know who or why.”

The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, an armed group of self-appointed guardians of the southern border, vows to protect it even if it means killing.

U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who paid a visit to the border this year, claims: “Much of the success of our movement is a result of the Minuteman Project.” Tancredo is head of the House of Representatives Special Commission on Immigration, and a staunch supporter of better border enforcement.

Raul Yzaguirre, former chief executive at National Council of La Raza, calls the Minuteman organization “a hate-mongering group from the lunatic fringe.”

It’s difficult not to get caught up in the rhetoric. Yet rhetoric is not a solution, and so far, none has emerged.