Economic Aid to Give Mexicans, Central Americans Work at Home

Tyche Hendricks, San Francisco Chronicle, January 7, 2008

From her office on the edge of San Francisco’s Financial District, Diana Campoamor was networking—meeting for drinks with a banker, compiling a briefing book for a foundation trustee, exchanging phone calls with colleagues in Mexico City.

She was putting all the pieces in place so her group, Hispanics in Philanthropy, could cut its first check this month for a three-year, $219,000 grant to expand a goat-cheese cooperative in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico.

More goats, corrals, pasteurizing equipment and refrigerators should allow the operation to grow from one village to four, providing work for hundreds of peasant farmers who might otherwise join their siblings and cousins as illegal immigrants harvesting peaches, slaughtering chickens, driving nails and scrubbing dishes across the United States.

The group’s decision to fund economic development projects in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, after almost 25 years working in U.S. Latino communities, is part of a movement taking hold in Northern California to tackle the root causes of illegal immigration.

“People don’t leave their homes unless there’s a hardship, economic or political,” said Campoamor, the president of Hispanics in Philanthropy, who is herself a refugee from Cuba. “Everyone should have a choice. We want to help people have a job and a chance to stay where they are, and to have a voice in their communities and their countries.”

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In Northern California, some grassroots development and immigrant groups are trying a different approach. They reason that if people in Latin America had a way to lift themselves and their communities out of poverty, they wouldn’t need to leave home, risk their lives crossing the border and live on the margins of U.S. society to earn a living and support their relatives back home.

The projects range from small to large, and involve a variety of players—major foundations, socially conscious consumers and migrant workers themselves—in diverse approaches to improving life in some of the communities that are sending undocumented immigrants north. They’re helping build lagging village infrastructure, incubating productive rural projects and giving farmers fair access to global markets.

Part of the solution

Luis Alberto Rivera is president of an association of Californians originally from his hometown, Coalcomán, in the central Mexican state of Michoacán. Seeing thousands of Coalcomanenses migrate to the United States, Rivera and his compatriots were determined to do something to help improve life back home.

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Rivera and members of his hometown association offered to fund a sewage treatment plant and talked the town government into installing a system of sewers to collect the wastewater. They’ve set a fundraising goal of $100,000 and have already held a couple of benefit dinners in the Central Valley.

And the group plans to apply for matching funds under the Three for One program, whereby the Mexican federal, state and local governments each pitch in a dollar for every dollar contributed to a project by Mexican migrants outside the country.

Recognizing the billions of dollars that expatriate Mexicans send home each year to their families, the Mexican authorities created the matching fund arrangement in 2002 to channel some of that money to public works. In 2006, more than 1,000 Mexican migrant groups contributed close to $20 million to community improvement projects in 845 rural and urban locations, according to Martha Esquivel of Mexico’s Department of Social Development.

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Creating jobs

In the village of Tamaula, in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, Pedro Laguna hopes that expanding his five-family goat-farming cooperative with the grant from Hispanics in Philanthropy can help stanch the flow of young people to the United States.

“I have nine kids in the United States, three daughters and six sons, but I have very little communication with them,” said the 60-year-old father of 13 in a telephone interview. “I don’t want to lose my children. We want to invest in our community so we have work here where we live.”

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Hispanics in Philanthropy plans to make three-year grants to half a dozen more projects in Mexico this spring and to begin similar efforts in Nicaragua and Guatemala. The group is already working in the Dominican Republic and Argentina.

Fair Trade

On a larger scale, and with a somewhat different approach, Oakland-based TransFair USA is promoting fair trade coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas, rice and other agricultural products from Mexico and many other developing countries.

“Our goal is to give people the tools and the market access to lift themselves out of poverty. When you do that, people don’t want to leave home,” said TransFair founder and president Paul Rice.

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But Mexico, where the economy does not currently create enough jobs for the population, has come to rely on the remittances sent home by migrant workers, said another immigration analyst, Jeff Faux, the director of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

“The deal works for the elites on both sides of the border. The U.S. business community gets cheap labor and suppresses wages, and the Mexican elite gets rid of people who are discontented and restless,” he said. “But you can’t develop a country by exporting your most ambitious people.”

Faux has proposed that the United States give Mexico a push to develop its economy through investing in its own people. In an article in this month’s American Prospect magazine, Faux suggests that the United States offer to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement to promote economic growth and a more equal distribution of wealth in Mexico. That, he said, could produce a real solution to illegal immigration.

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