The view from Mexico on Immigration
OAXACA, Mexico — Carmen Romero, a resident of this capital in the southern state of Oaxaca, says the idea of immigrating to the United States is “a Mexican obsession,” though the reality of immigration for many is different from the dream.
It is difficult, if not impossible, for Mexicans to get a visa to go to the US. Work visas require prior arrangements with employers, and an appointment to get a tourist visa costs $131. If they can pay, applicants must then convince the US Embassy that they can actually afford to be tourists.
“They only have to look at the hands of a campesino [a small farmer] to know what they do for a living,” says Romero, who is hosting me as part a study abroad program. If so many people could get visas, she believes, the whole Oaxacan countryside would leave for the US.
Aurelio Maceda, who works for an indigenous rights’ coalition, the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB), disagrees. He believes that many of the hundreds of thousands of Oaxacans living in the US would return home if the US government made it easier to cross the border.
Oaxaca is the second poorest of Mexico’s 31 states. Many of the poorest people in Mexico are indigenous farmers living in the campo, rural areas where economic opportunities are often nonexistent, and migration may be the only option to find employment.
During a visit to a rural community in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca, I spoke with a farmer whose family earns a living by raising and selling goats. He told me about local residents who had left for the US, gesturing up into the dry hills to illustrate how they had gone north, through the desert, hiring “coyotes” to guide them on the perilous trip across the border.
Jesús León Santos, program coordinator an organization that promotes sustainable agriculture in the Mixteca region, says that the idea of immigrating to the US has become contagious in some nearby communities. Young people return home with cars and money, talking about their adventures. They often focus on their successes, not on the difficulties they may have faced.
Asked if the campesinos with whom he works know about the immigration debate in the US, León Santos laughs.
They know that the United States doesn’t like them, he says, but most of the poor migrants see it as a racial question. They don’t know about the debate over legal policy, national security, or the militarization of the border. They may be unaware that many in the US support the use of a wall — traditional or high-tech — to keep them out.
Miguel Pickard, who works for a social-research organization in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, says that the mainstream US media often overlooks how neo-liberal policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have contributed dramatically to the rise in Mexican immigration. Following NAFTA’s implementation in 1994, subsidized US agricultural products flooded the Mexican markets, and Mexican farmers couldn’t compete with the cheap imports.
Immigration to the US became a “survival strategy,” Pickard says, for campesinos that could no longer make money selling corn and other agricultural products, as they had for many years. As a result, immigration to the US from Mexico tripled after 1994, leading “millions” of people to make the trip, he says.
NAFTA’s impact illuminates how the source of the Latino immigration “problem” is sometimes closer to home than we are willing to admit.
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