Give and Take Across the Border

Carolyn Lochhead, San Francisco Chronicle, May 21, 2006

Washington—The current migration of Mexicans and Central Americans to the United States is one of the largest diasporas in modern history, experts say.

Roughly 10 percent of Mexico’s population of about 107 million is now living in the United States, estimates show. About 15 percent of Mexico’s labor force is working in the United States. One in every 7 Mexican workers migrates to the United States.

Mass migration from Mexico began more than a century ago. It is deeply embedded in the history, culture and economies of both nations. The current wave began with Mexico’s economic crisis in 1982, accelerated sharply in the 1990s with the U.S. economic boom, and today has reached record dimensions.

It is unlikely to ebb anytime soon.

“There is no scenario outside of catastrophic attack on the United States that would make immigration stop,” said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

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Three-quarters of the estimated 12 million illegal migrants in the United States come from Mexico and Central America. Mexicans make up 56 percent of the unauthorized U.S. migrant population, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Another 22 percent come from elsewhere in Latin America, mainly Central America and the Andean countries. These same countries send many of the half-million new illegal immigrants who arrive each year.

Migration is profoundly altering Mexico and Central America. Entire rural communities are nearly bereft of working-age men. The town of Tendeparacua, in the Mexican state of Michoacan, had 6,000 residents in 1985, and now has 600, according to news reports. In five Mexican states, the money migrants send home exceeds locally generated income, one study found.

Last year, Mexico received a record $20 billion in remittances from migrant workers. That is equal to Mexico’s 2004 income from oil exports and dwarfing tourism revenue.

Arriving in small monthly transfers of $100 and $200, remittances have formed a vast river of “migra-dollars” that now exceeds lending by multilateral development agencies and foreign direct investment combined, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

The money Mexican migrants send home almost equals the U.S. foreign aid budget for the entire world, said Arturo Valenzuela, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University and former head of Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

“Where are we going to come up with $20 billion?” to ensure stability in Mexico, Valenzuela asked at a recent conference. “Has anybody in the raging immigration debate over the last few weeks thought, could it be good for the fundamental interests of the United States . . . to serve as something of a safety valve for those that can’t be employed in Mexico?”

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