The Mexican Connection

Mass migration has left many towns in Mexico half-empty, but much wealthier.

Among the crumbling adobe shacks of rural Mexico, two-story California- style housing developments are rising. In the tiny city of Tlacolula, plots of land that sold for about $10,000 in 1994 now cost $60,000. Like the towns where they are going up, the new developments are partly empty. The home owners are among the many Mexican workers—nearly one in seven overall, and half the adult population of some communities, such as La Purísima and San Juan Mixtepec—who are in the United States. Typically working low-wage jobs, they send home much of their pay (41 percent on average, or $300 a month) to support families left behind and build a better life for their return.

Remittances to Mexico exceed $20 billion a year. By 2003, they had become the nation’s second-largest source of external finance, ahead of tourism and foreign investment and just behind oil exports. That same year, then-President Vicente Fox noted that the roughly 20 million Mexican-origin workers in America create a larger gross product than Mexico itself.

Worldwide, remittances have surpassed direct aid in volume, and international development institutions (along with the governments of many less- developed countries) have recently seized upon them as a key to economic growth in the global South. The United States is the largest source of remittances—Saudi Arabia, with its armies of serflike guest workers, is No. 2—and Mexico the largest recipient of U.S. funds.

The map below, based in part on work by Raúl Hernández-Coss for the World Bank, shows the flow of remittances from different parts of the United States to various states in Mexico—a mirror image of migration flows from south to north. Though mass migration from Mexico to the United States is a relatively recent phenomenon, it has grown through century-old social networks linking specific immigrant communities in America to their hometowns in Mexico. Most of these networks have their roots in rural Mexico, though migration from urban areas is now increasing as well.

Remittances are unquestionably a boon to Mexican living standards, but they are also changing the character of Mexican life. In some towns with a long history of migration, leaving home to work in the United States has become a rite of passage for young men, often in place of completing school. Many of these towns are bereft of men and dominated by single-parent households. The money flowing in reduces local incentives to work and fuels inflation. Many of the houses being built boost real-estate prices beyond the reach of people working in Mexico.

Typically the men—most Mexican emigrants are men, though in border states women increasingly cross over— leave believing that they will eventually return. But most do not. U.S. crackdowns on illegal immigration have made the trip north dangerous and expensive (financing an illegal entry can cost $20,000 or more), so workers sometimes must remain for years just to repay transit debts. As seasonal visits to Mexican hometowns become more difficult and rare, family ties weaken. Perversely, stepped-up attempts to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States have resulted in a migrant population more likely to stay. The fact that more than $20 billion is sent back to Mexico each year is evidence of a robust labor flow that seems to benefit both economies. It’s also a sign of workers stuck between two worlds.

Branching Out

Social networks have long connected certain communities in Mexico to specific cities in the U.S.—Puebla to New York, Michoacán to Chicago, Jalisco to Boston. As migration has grown, these networks have proliferated. But new links are forming as well; for instance, workers are increasingly migrating from Guerrero to Georgia, with money flowing back the other way.

The Hollow States

Five predominantly rural Mexican states—Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas—send a disproportionately large number of emigrants to the United States. Their links to the U.S. date back a century, to when American mining and railroad companies recruited workers from these regions to offset reductions in Chinese and Japanese immigration. Home to less than a third of Mexico’s population, they receive 44 percent of Mexico’s remittances.

Staying Put

The relatively small remittance flow to Mexico’s border states attests to their economic strength. The spread of factories along the border to perform cheap manufacturing for U.S. companies allows many Mexicans to find work without crossing over.

Community Development (from 2,000 miles away)

Mexican “hometown associations” are common in American cities. They host dances, rodeos, and picnics, and send the proceeds back to their members’ native towns to finance water, electricity, or building projects. Migrants in Chicago, for instance, gathered $240,000 one year to build a church in the small village of La Purísima (pop. 4,000). The Mexican government matches such funds 3-to-1.