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Q&A: Why there's still work to do in Mexico, in spite of less migration

Photo by J. Stephen Conn/Flickr (Creative Commons)

In the last week or so, much of the talk regarding illegal immigration from Mexico has turned to how more would-be migrants are staying home. Last week, a widely-circulated New York Times story profiled a family in the longtime migrant-sending state of Jalisco, pointing to economic and educational improvements there as one of the reasons why those who would lave left a decade ago may now be opting to skip the trip north.

This week, a new study from the RAND Corporation addressed diminished cross-border movement in both directions, with fewer migrants heading north, though fewer of those who are already in the United States are returning south in light of the economic recession.

The Times story generated some skepticism from longtime Mexico watchers, who noted that the improvements described aren't universal in all Mexican states. But it did generate a good conversation about what is needed in Mexico in order to level the playing field, neutralize the appeal of illegal immigration and make for better trading partners.

Arturo Carmona, executive director of the Consejo de Federaciones Mexicanas en Norteamérica, or COFEM, is among those closest to what's happening in migrant sending towns. COFEM is a Los Angeles-based umbrella group of 312 Mexican hometown associations composed of immigrants and their families, whose mission it is to raise money for infrastructure and quality-of-life improvement projects. One of their goals is economic sustainability for these hometowns, with the idea of making them less dependent on migrant remittances.

M-A: The New York Times story connected slowed migration to a series of educational, economic and other improvements in Mexico. How realistic do you think this picture is?

Carmona: I think that it the article offered an important perspective, but I think we need to be cautious abut being over-optimistic. The reality is that there is still much to do in Mexico. Large sectors of the population remain in deep poverty, particularly in many areas that are beginning to create migratory patterns towards the U.S. I think that states like Jalisco and Zacatecas have had migratory patterns for so many years, so many generations, that you are starting to see more of a lull.

But in many regions where poverty is much harsher, you are beginning to see a cultivation of migration. More work needs to be done at the federal level in the U.S. to promote sustainable economic development that will allow the country to grow more rapidly. U.S. investment in Mexico will only help the U.S. in the long run in further strengthening our trade and commerce. We are starting to see some sings of that, but we are far from the goal of economic development that Mexico requires to compete at a level playing field.

M-A: Which are the non-traditional sending areas from where new migrants have been coming?

Carmona: Chiapas, Oaxaca, Puebla, some of states within the Sierra Mixteca, and other states like Hidalgo and Yucatan. You're seeing migration to places that have not had migration before, like to New York or the South. You may not see them in L.A.,where they have old migratory patterns. But I think there needs to be a holistic perspective as we analyze this article, because under the economic growth that is being said in certain regions, there remains an economic crisis and very high levels of severe poverty in others. Mexico’s elite continue to control a disproportionate portion of the nation’s wealth and over a third of the population remains in severe poverty. There is also a war on drugs in Mexico that has affected migrants, not only from Central America but from the southern states.

M-A: While the improvements in the article may not be occurring throughout Mexico, does it as least give us a good starting point for a discussion about what needs occur to make this happen?

Carmona: You have a series of things that should be factored into this analysis, but I don't think the article fully looks at them. I do think there have been improvements, and it's good to shed light on that but it is important that we look at the whole picture here. I think that is the message people should go away with, that development is the key to a long term, stable, and economically productive relationship with Mexico. I don't think we are doing enough and believe during this period of high anti-immigrant sentiment is an opportune time to talk about this issue.

I think the best thing that anti-immigrants should do is look at development strategies as the most practical way to stop migration on the short end and long run. When you look at a neighbor that you want to have a stable relationship with, especially on the migratory issue, you need to level the economic playing field. This is a good article in the sense that it stimulates this dialogue in perhaps the country’s most important newspaper.

M-A: How best to tap into the money that is being sent south by immigrants here?

Carmona: It's not about remesas or remittances. People talk about the tens of billions of dollars that are sent each year, but when you sum up the money, these resources are going for basic food and basic survival. It’s not a lot. You are talking about one dollar of every ten that some immigrant workers make going to their families in Mexico and other countries. I think there are different ideas about how to tap into those resources but we need to very cautious about that.

M-A: What other policy changes need to happen? And what larger means of economic development are we talking about?

Carmona: I think that the war on drugs has been an utter failure, and if anything it has shown us what not to do in terms of our relationship with Mexico. There is an endless demand for drugs in this country and the supply lines will exist no matter what is done as long as this is the reality. Until we accept that and deal with our own issue here in the States, we have no business in destabilizing Mexico through a war strategy that has only served to enrich the military industrial complex. It has really destabilized Mexico.

Our country needs to learn how to promote economic development strategies: migrant investment, working to expand the work of institutions like U.S. Aid, the InterAmerican Foundation and many others. They have a lot of learned experience about what works and what doesn't in the area of development. We really need to be looking at that whole body of work as we advance a complete development strategy and making some sound policy decisions.

At the end of the day, that is going to be beneficial for the U.S. and Mexico. It will promote a Mexico with more stable society, more peaceful, and more productive. The United States will be able to do more commerce and trade with Mexico as a result. For California, Mexico continues to be the number one trading partner so this is particularly true for our region. The economic relationship is extremely real.

We need to work at completing the other key components of NAFTA that never came into fruition. The NADBANK (North American Development Bank) and other key development and educational components that went by the wayside. That is an unfulfilled promise that needs to be completed in order to promote a more stable and productive relationship.