Sunday, December 20, 2009

Dinero al Norte

Thanks to my colleague Vernon for pointing me to Marc Lacey's fascinating NY Times cover article about impoverished families in southern Mexico struggling to send money north to their relatives in the United States. Although the trend Lacey describes remains relatively small, this story is relevant to many key facets of migration between Latin America and the United States.
As I write this, I am enjoying a cup of decaf coffee from Chiapas, the home state of some of the families mentioned in the article. Although the article does not mention coffee, it is an important part of the background. People continue to leave coffee-growing areas because prices fluctuate between low and lower, so that even people who own their own land often work as virtual slaves. Since people in this position are not often represented at "free" trade negotiations, their options become fewer year by year. Nobody should complain about "illegal" immigration before thoroughly understanding these dynamics, because the "legal" and "just" are divergent concepts. The same process is unfolding in coffeelands throughout the world; see these examples from Oaxaca and Chiapas, and know that a similar story is behind every cup of conventional coffee sold.

Back to the NY Times story: It was first brought to my attention when we were discussing the exodus of Brazilians from the town of Framingham, Massachusetts. As the U.S. dollar has weakened, many who moved to Massachusetts in order to bring or send money back to Brazil have decided to leave. In many cases, these have been middle-class Brazilians who saw coming to this region for a year or two as an expedient way to earn money to invest in a business or a nicer home in Brazil. When the U.S. economy weakened, many of these folks found their way back home, revealing the extent to which some sectors of the Massachusetts economy had become dependent upon them.

The case in Mexico is similar in some ways, except that the migrants tend to be much poorer, and the ability to move back and forth is much reduced. An ironic consequence of the poorly-conceived border wall is that crossing once is so risky that people will remain in the U.S. who in previous years might have gone home. As Lacey points out, this is not an option for people who have risked everything for a chance to earn money in the North.

For some families of Oaxaca and Chiapas, the result of these current absurdities is that undocumented workers in the richest country in the world are receiving small payments from some of the poorest people in Mexico, hoping to keep them in place until the economy improves. Eventually, they hope, the work that U.S. citizens usually eschew will be available to them once again, and the remittances will resume their usual pattern.

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