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April 2005, Volume 12, Number 2

Mexico: Migrants, Mexicans in US, Economy

The Mexican government published a 31-page "Guide for the Mexican Migrant" in January 2005 that advises Mexicans how to enter the United States safely, raising a firestorm among anti-migrant US groups. Unauthorized migrants in the US said that they did not find the booklet useful, and reported that current smuggling fees are $2,000 to travel from the Mexican side of the border to Phoenix. Migrants in the US said it was best to hire smugglers while in their hometowns rather than at the border, and if apprehended to never tell US officials the name of the smuggler to avoid retribution. They also recommended wearing layers of clothes and using tobacco to ward off snakes while sleeping in the desert.

Mexico received $16.6 billion in remittances in 2004, reflecting more migrants as well as lower costs to send money home; some transfer firms advertise rates of $6 per $100 sent, much less than previous charges that were 10 to 20 percent of the amount remitted. There were 50.9 million transfers averaging $327 in 2004, according to Mexico's Central Bank.

Some 2.2 million Mexicans in the US have matricula consular cards, which are accepted as valid forms of identification by 377 cities, 163 counties, 178 financial institutions and 1,180 police departments. About 75 percent of the matricula consular cards are newer versions with security features.

Mexican-born. According to the US Census, there were 9.2 million Mexican-born US residents in 2000. They included 2.3 million who had become naturalized US citizens, 2.1 million legal immigrants and 4.8 million unauthorized Mexicans.

Mexican-born US residents differ from Mexicans still in Mexico. For example, 16 percent of Mexicans were 25-35 years old in 2000, but 30 percent of Mexican-born US residents were in this age group. About 34 percent of Mexicans are under 15, but only 10 percent of Mexican-born US residents are under 15.

Most Mexicans migrate to the US for jobs, and 48 percent of the Mexican-born in the US are employed, compared to 38 percent of those in Mexico. About 55 percent of Mexican-born US residents are employed in construction and services, compared to 37 percent of Mexicans in Mexico. Finally, a higher percentage of Mexican-born US residents are employed in manufacturing, 21 percent compared to 19 percent of Mexicans in Mexico.

Most Mexican-born US residents succeed in raising their incomes by moving to the US. Only 11 percent of US households headed by Mexican-born persons have incomes below $10,000 a year, while 80 percent of Mexican households have incomes below $10,000 a year. Banamex in November 2004 reported that average household income was $31,500 for US households headed by Mexican-born persons and $10,000 for Mexican households.

In 2000, there were 62 million Mexicans aged 15 to 64, including 22 million in the 15- to 25-age group from which most first-time unauthorized migrants are drawn. By 2012, Conapo (Mexico's population agency) predicts there will be 77 million 15- to 64-year olds, and 23 million 15- to 25-year olds, that is, there will be little growth in the age group from which most first-time migrants are drawn. This should significantly reduce emigration pressures, especially if more Mexican youth stay in school longer, fewer Mexicans come of age in rural areas, where network links to the US are strongest, and formal jobs are created in Mexico.

The 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations requires countries to give foreigners arrested access to their nation's consular representatives before and during trial. US state and local governments do not routinely do this, and the International Court of Justice in the Hague (World Court), in a March 2004 decision ruled that 51 Mexicans on death row in the US who had not been informed at the time of their arrests that they could seek assistance from Mexican consular officials had the right to "effective review" of their convictions and sentences.

A federal appeals court, in Medellin v. Dretke, No. 04-5928, concluded that Mexican national Medellin could not raise the World Court ruling after his trial and conviction. However, President Bush in March 2005 said that he would order state courts to review convictions of foreigners who were not advised of their consular rights.

Hometown Associations. Mexican Hometown Associations (HTAs) are becoming more powerful in Mexican politics, reflecting remittances sent to Mexico and the voluntary contributions of Mexicans in the US to improve their home towns. Southern California is the capital of the Mexican diaspora, and organizations such as the Federation of Zacatecan Clubs are playing an increasingly important role in the politics of both countries.

HTAs are key to the Tres por Uno, or Three for One programs, under which each dollar contributed by migrants for civic improvements is matched by local, state and federal governments. However, there are often disagreements over priorities, with HTAs wanting to renovate churches while local mayors want roads or electricity. In one sign of migrant strength, Three for One now matches migrant contributions to renovate churches.

In one town whose population dropped from 2,000 to 600, the mayor says that remittances and Three for One are a mixed blessing. The more people go, the more remittances, but more remittances also inspire more people to emigrate. Once everyone is gone, migrants will not have any reason to send remittances, and the improvements will be "empty palaces."

HTAs sometimes do not raise all of the money pledged, and state and local governments do not always make their expected matches. As a result, the $20 million contributed by migrants to Three for One programs are only about one percent of total remittances.

Economy. Employment in Mexico's maquiladora industry rose seven percent in 2004 to 1.1 million; exports were $19 billion. Maquiladora employment peaked in 2000 at 1.3 million, and analysts warned that much of the recent employment growth was in "service" maquiladoras, such as those that sort supermarket coupons and repair home appliances returned to retailers under warranty by US consumers.

Mexico's housing sector is booming. The federal housing lender, Infonavit, has made two million loans since 2001, more than in the previous 28 years. Many of the new houses are 700-square-foot two-story attached units that sell for $24,000 each in the suburbs of Mexico City. It is far easier to provide services to homes in planned subdivisions than to bring water, sewer and other services to self-built homes that lack such amenities.

Beginning January 1, 2005, Mexico's average minimum wage is 45.40 pesos ($4.12) a day; the minimum wage varies slightly between areas.

Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leading candidate for president in 2006 according to polls, outlined alternatives to the free trade and privatization model that Mexico has followed for the past 15 years. If Lopez Obrador and the Democratic Revolution Party come to power, Mexico may retreat from the economic integration with the US symbolized by Nafta.

However, in April 2005, a committee of the Mexican Congress cleared the way for a vote to impeach Lopez Obrador, who is accused of disobeying a 2001 judicial order to halt construction of an access road to a hospital. Lopez Obrador is very popular in Mexico City, in part because he launched a program to provide 370,000 elderly with $64 a month pensions issued on plastic cards the size of driver's licenses and usable in many stores (60 percent of Mexicans over the age of 60 are poor). Critics say such giveaways are unsustainable; supporters say that Lopez Obrador has cut bureaucracy enough to pay for the $342-million program.

Marla Dickerson, "Seniors Rally Around Mayor of Mexico City," Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2005. Ginger Thompson, "Mexico's Migrants Profit From Dollars Sent Home," New York Times, February 23, 2005. Charlie deDuff and J. Emilio Flores, "The Everymigrant's Guide to Crossing the Border Illegally, New York Times, February 9, 2005.