Trying to curb the migrant flow


Mexico: Jobs programs are seen as key to keeping young workers from leaving for U.S.

September 03, 2001|By James F. Smith | James F. Smith,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ZACATECAS, Mexico -- Neither the United States nor Mexico appears to want to face a central issue in the debate over immigration policy: how to develop poor rural villages and stagnant regional cities in Mexico so that would-be migrants can get decent jobs at home.

As Presidents Bush and Vicente Fox look for solutions before a summit in Washington this week, most of the talk is about recognizing the reality of the endless flow of migrants. Hardly anyone is talking about how to prevent people in Mexico's migrant-sending states from wanting to leave in the first place.

Maybe that's because such development is so difficult, and such a long-term prospect -- requiring decades, not just years.

But in Zacatecas state, where whole towns have been all but emptied by migration and have grown dependent on money sent home by emigrant workers, some people don't think it's impossible. University researchers, state officials and Zacatecan-born migrants are devising pilot projects that aim to make local development a reality.

Andres Bermudez understands better than most people the damage migration has indirectly inflicted on Mexico. Bermudez, who left Mexico 28 years ago and made his fortune growing tomatoes in central California, sweeps his arm out over his tidy home village and mutters: "Every one of these houses was made with dollars. And eight out of 10 of them are empty."

Bermudez was elected mayor of Jerez in central Zacatecas state in July on a single-minded platform: to create jobs so that the few young people living here don't have to leave and so that those who have left can return.

One goal of people such as Bermudez is to think beyond the "social investment" of recent years, in which clubs of Zacatecan migrants in the United States have sent money back for community projects such as paving roads and digging wells.

The next stage is to get successful migrants to invest in entrepreneurial projects in their hometowns that create jobs and earn profits. These could range from canneries and processing plants to new mining projects to small textile assembly plants.

"We believe that each job we create is one less migrant who leaves," says state Economic Secretary Carlos Lozano. "The problem is going to be solved here, not there."

Officials compare this type of economic development plan to the aid program created for Spain and Portugal when they joined the European Community to spur job creation and reduce the need for people to immigrate to richer nations.

Such a support program for Mexico was never part of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect in 1994. So the playing field was never leveled. And migration accelerated.

Money does pour into Zacatecas from migrants in the United States -- more than $1 million a day -- but 95 percent of it is spent on food and basic survival needs rather than investment.

Wayne Cornelius, who heads both the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies and the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California at San Diego, has argued for years that economic development in places such as Jerez is the only serious way to reduce illegal immigration to the United States.

"My preference, and that of the vast majority of immigration scholars, would be to focus first on creating alternatives to immigration in the sending communities, through investments, credits and infrastructure programs," he says. "It's not a magic bullet, even if perfectly implemented, given the wage differential. But don't seal up the border before you've made the effort to create meaningful alternatives to emigration on the Mexican side."

The easiest route for Mexico has been to exploit migration as an economic safety valve, rather than to try to halt it and have to face demands from would-be migrants for work opportunities. And the United States never summoned the political will in the NAFTA negotiations for a World War II-style Marshall Plan for Mexico.

"If the two governments had listened to people like Wayne Cornelius 20 years ago, we wouldn't be in this crisis," says Rodolfo Garcia Zamora, a professor of migration studies at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas.

Garcia Zamora's small team has joined state officials to try to make up the lost years, by turning migrants' remittances -- the money they send home -- into productive investments.

The financing arm of the InterAmerican Development Bank is developing a $2 million pilot project to develop 60 small investment projects in 20 towns in Zacatecas and 20 more in Guanajuato and Puebla. Successful migrants would be invited to invest in their home communities, assisted by state incentive packages designed to fix roads and other public services.

Although Mexico has made the issue of economic development in migrant areas one of its five points in immigration negotiations with the United States, Washington has been silent so far on the issue of development assistance.

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