The U.S. economic downturn and tightened border controls have begun to alter the rhythms of undocumented migrants who used to move back and forth with regularity, which has crimped the flow of money sent home to Mexico, one of the nation’s main sources of foreign income.
The developments have produced worry and deep uncertainty in towns such as Tejaro, a farming community of 4,200 where pickup trucks bear license plates from Nevada and Minnesota. Virtually every family here has sent relatives across the border, usually illegally and often to the same few U.S. destinations.
The number of residents from this part of central Michoacan state who are making the trip this year is about half the usual rate of 8,000, said Juan Felipe Ruiz Lopez, a former undocumented worker in Georgia who now oversees migrant issues for the municipality that includes Tejaro.
On the edge of a tree-shaded plaza in nearby Tarimbaro, the municipal seat, the town’s lone money exchange has seen transfers drop to about $800 daily from $7,000, said co-owner Maria de los Angeles Duarte.
She said those still sending money do so less often, every two weeks instead of weekly.
Residents and analysts say the drop shows the precarious situation of migrants in the United States. Many are holding on to their wages as a hedge, while others have given up and gone home.
Donald F. Terry, a senior official at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, said about 1 million fewer Mexican families are now receiving remittances, increasing the risk of poverty.
“You could have an increase in poverty in Mexico, and it could be significant if the numbers accelerate,” Terry said.
A deepening cash shortage could push reluctant migrants to hit the road again, said Jorge Smeke, who heads the business administration program at Iberoamerican University in Mexico City.
“People could decide, ‘I have to go,’ “ Smeke said. “A drop in remittances could produce a greater flow of migrants, or a greater flow to the cities” in Mexico.
“If you don’t have work here, you have to go somewhere. It’s the reality of Mexico,” said Hernandez, 38, wearing a blue baseball cap and the cocksure demeanor of a man who has sneaked past border agents four times. “We have to go because here we can’t survive.”
U.S. immigration officials say falling arrests and remittances are evidence that many undocumented migrants have been dissuaded by the stricter measures, which include hundreds more border agents, new fences and, in selected areas, criminal prosecution of those caught crossing.
Arrests on the border fell to 876,704 during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, a 20% decline from the previous year. This year, they are on pace to be lower still, by about 16%.
Some argue that the sagging economy is probably a bigger factor in the drop-off. They say smugglers continue to get migrants past the beefed-up border defenses by using false documents or traveling by sea.
Wayne Cornelius, an immigration expert at UC San Diego, predicted that border arrests and money transfers would bounce back to earlier levels once the U.S. economy recovered. That’s what happened when border arrests fell during the 2001-02 economic downturn, he said.