American dream or pipe dream? Poverty forces Mexicans to migrate

A woman carries a child through the unpaved streets of San Miguel de Las Minas, Puebla, Mexico, September 7, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Vicente Castillo

A woman carries a child through the unpaved streets of San Miguel de Las Minas, Puebla, Mexico, September 7, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Vicente Castillo

What’s the context?

Cost of living crisis drives new Mexican wave of migrants over the U.S. border.

  • Mexican migration at 15-year high
  • Inflation and violence driving the exodus
  • U.S. economic reboot needs Mexican muscle

By Diana Baptista

San Miguel Las Minas, MEXICO - Antonio Cardoso worries about the day when his parents fall sick and he can't support them with what little money he earns doing odd building jobs in his remote Mexican mountain town.

It is a worry that is driving him and many others to drastic measures: fueling a new wave of migration as Mexicans head north en masse to escape economic crisis and violence at home.

Last October, Cardoso accepted an offer from his uncle, a car mechanic in Indianapolis, to pay a smuggler more than $10,000 to get him across the border, almost 2,000 miles from his hilltop home in the Pueblan village of San Miguel Las Minas.

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"I went there to search for a better life, a better economy," Cardoso, 31, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from the bright green church in the main square of town.

After 15 years of an overall drop in the number of Mexicans moving to the United States, rising inflation and violence are now driving droves of Mexican migrants back over the border.

In the latest fiscal year, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has detained more than 744,000 Mexicans in the southwest border region, the highest tally since 2008.

"Since the months following the pandemic, we have seen an increase of people in Mexico who try to cross the border in a clandestine way," said Guillermo Yrizar, an expert in migration at the Ibero-American University Puebla.

Two days into a difficult journey through the Arizonan desert, Cardoso was caught by the Border Patrol and sent back to Mexico. Unbowed, he plans to try again as soon as he saves enough for the smuggler.

"I'm determined to face anything out there. Migrants, we are determined to win," he said.

No jobs

For 50 years, migration north has been a constant in San Miguel Las Minas, whose inhabitants have fourth generation families settled in cities from New York to Texas to California.

Those left back home have increasingly struggled since an earthquake destroyed several homes in 2017, worsening already tough conditions in a region with high levels of poverty.

"Some people lost everything in the earthquake. Many left to the United States to save a little money to reconstruct their homes," said municipal president Irene Olea.

"Then, during the pandemic, many lost their businesses and have had a hard time recovering."

A countrywide drought and higher fertilizer prices due to war in Ukraine have also paralyzed agriculture in a region whose people rely on crops of corn and peanut to last them all year.

"There are no jobs here, it’s too isolated. All we can do is chop some wood and make some charcoal," said Félix Hernández, town inspector who acts as an intermediary with the municipal government, and who worked six years in the United States as an undocumented fisherman in the early 2000s.

Half the town’s 1,150 inhabitants now live abroad, according to Hernández, and the scattered houses on the mountain mostly just home the children, women, and elderly who were left behind.

Like many locals, Cándida Cardoso, 43, makes a living by migrating three times a year to the northern Mexican state of Sonora to harvest grapes and cucumbers.

Now even that is too dangerous as organized crime gangs extort the workers and force them to buy drugs, she said.

"Families with migrants abroad have money for food and health. But those of us without migrant family suffer a lot," said Cardoso, who lost her house in the 2017 earthquake and now lives in a makeshift hamlet built by the government.

In the past decade, villagers working in the United States sent money home to build a bridge for local children to get to school during the rainy season and contributed to a dam that gave the community access to water.

The town must rely on its migrants to pay for basic amenities or improvements - be it to pave the streets, install sewage or introduce drinking water, said Cardoso.

A woman sits at her house in San Miguel de Las Minas, Puebla, Mexico, September 7, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Vicente Castillo

Cándida Cardoso, 43, sits at her house in San Miguel de Las Minas, Puebla, Mexico, September 7, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Vicente Castillo

Cándida Cardoso, 43, sits at her house in San Miguel de Las Minas, Puebla, Mexico, September 7, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Vicente Castillo

Money

Migrants are a cornerstone of Mexican economy - remittances reached a record high in July as families received $5.3 billion from abroad, an annual increase of 16.5%, according to data from the Mexican central bank.

But migration is not only beneficial for Mexicans.

As the United States economy powers up, it has spawned a market for Mexicans to cover for all the essential workers who died during COVID-19, said Tomás Romero, who has advocated for migrants in Puebla for 15 years.

"The pandemic decreased the working population in cities like New York, while many migrants returned to Mexico due to the fear of COVID-19. Now those migrants have gone back, and more manpower is needed," he said.

Yet migrating is impossible without the help of relatives already abroad, with smugglers costing from $15,000 to $25,000.

They also pay for the flight to a Mexican border city, as well as meals and a hotel stay that can last weeks until the smugglers decide it is time to set off.

Migrants not only take on this huge debt but also risk death by abandonment en route - be it in the desert, river, or in sweltering trucks - like the 53 migrants found dead in San Antonio, Texas, on Jun. 27, 2022.

The message from the top - stay, your country needs you.

Municipal president Olea is leading local efforts to dissuade young people from taking the risky trip, pushing for ecotourism and new agriculture to boost the local economy.

"We go to high schools to teach teenagers the difference between the American dream and a pipe dream. The reality is our migrants suffer in the U.S. from overcrowded housing, expensive services, violence, and harassment," she said.

Ángel Cabrera, 36, chose to stay and work in construction, building the houses of those who fled but expect to return after making enough money or getting deported - whichever comes first.

While some hamlets are collapsing after years of outward migration, the big, colorful houses built by Cabrera stand out.

"We have work thanks to those who migrated to the United States. When they do well, we do well," said Cabrera.


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Wealth inequality
Cost of living
Migration

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