And still, Mexicans come
Arizona Daily Star
April 19, 2009


Recession's Ripples spread wide

Illegal entry is down, yet thousands continue to pin hopes on the weakened US job market

By Brady McCombs

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

NOGALES, Sonora — Tiburcio Cuba Diaz has heard all about the dismal state of the U.S. economy.

"Everyone says the crisis is very bad," Cuba, 34, a father of five from Puebla, Mexico, said in Spanish, "that they are firing people and there is very little work."

But Cuba is still determined to cross the border illegally and make it to New York, where relatives say he'll be able to find work at a restaurant. His decision boils down to simple economics.

"If the economy is bad in the United States, it's worse in Mexico," said Cuba, who was in Nogales last week after being caught by the Border Patrol on his first try. "The economy in the U.S. is always better."

A host of indicators show that the flow of illegal immigration across the Southwest border has slowed to decade-low levels, but there are still thousands trying to cross each day, especially in Arizona.

Not even the worst U.S. recession in a quarter century has brought the flow of illegal immigrants to a halt. The pull of jobs in the United States may have weakened, but the push from Latin America remains fairly strong.

"In Mexico, they are always in crisis," said Faustino Gonzalez, who provides assistance at the Aid Center for Deported Migrants in Nogales, which provides food and medical services to illegal immigrants. "The Mexican never loses hope that crossing over to live in the United States will work out."

Whether it's deported illegal immigrants trying to get back to their families in the U.S. or people leaving countries with economies even worse than ours, there are still enough people to keep coyotes, or guides, in business.

U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions along the Southwest border and in the Tucson Sector have dropped by 37 percent in the last two years, but agents in the 262-mile Tucson Sector still made more than 1,000 apprehensions a day in March.

Agents catch one in three border crossers, according to research from Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California-San Diego. If that's true, as many as 3,000 people cross through the sector daily.

"Those folks don't have any alternative," Cornelius said. "They have to take the risks of migration even under these conditions because they have no economic options in their hometowns."

Two migrant aid centers in Nogales, Sonora, have seen fewer than half as many deported migrants this year, but they are still providing food and medical care to as many as 400 people daily.

"The American dream is very powerful," said Ramiro Quintero Chavez, of the Sonoran State Commission for the Care of Migrants. "The illusion is still there."

With more than 13 million people in the United States jobless and the 8.5 percent unemployment rate higher than any other time in a quarter century, why would anybody spend thousands of dollars, leave their families behind and risk their lives when such a dismal economy awaits them?

It is a complex answer best explained by four key factors:

Global recession

The recession is trickling down to other parts of the world, especially Mexico, which accounts for more than 92 percent of people apprehended by the Border Patrol on the Southwest border.

"This recession is not just affecting the U.S.; it's a global recession," said Judith Gans, immigration-policy program manager at the University of Arizona's Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy. "It's affecting people in sending countries as well."

The International Monetary Fund and World Bank both expect the Mexican economic growth to slow to less than 2 percent this year from nearly 5 percent in 2006. The value of the Mexican peso plummeted by 30 percent from August 2008 to March of this year before regaining some value in the past month and a half. The same 100 pesos that would have been worth $10 in August 2008 are now worth $7.60.

Most of the rest of the world began feeling the trickle-down effects of the U.S. recession around September 2008, said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for comprehensive immigration changes. The National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that the U.S. recession began in December 2007.

"If the No. 1 consumer in the world no longer consumes, everyone that relies in one way or the other on the United States will be affected," Papademetriou said. "If American banks don't lend, that means any economic activity around the world that needs money in order for that to move forward is also going to stall."

What does that mean for illegal immigration? As long as the gap between pay in Mexico and the United States remains large, people will continue to come.

Even after taking a cut in hours recently at the thrift store she had worked at for six years in Chicago, illegal immigrant Carla Contreras is still trying to return to the U.S. after going home to Hidalgo, Mexico, for a family emergency.

"Part-time work in Chicago is better than no work in Hidalgo," Contreras said in Spanish.

Family reunification

Many illegal border crossers are trying to reunite with family already in the United States.

The number of illegal immigrants deported from the interior of the country by Immigration and Customs Enforcement has increased every year since 2004, including a 24 percent increase in the past two years. Nearly 73,000 people were deported from Arizona in fiscal 2008, compared with 44,376 the year before.

A recent study from the Pew Hispanic Center found that 73 percent of the children of illegal immigrants were born in this country and are U.S. citizens.

Volunteers with No More Deaths are seeing more people who fit this profile at the aid centers they help run in Nogales, Naco and Agua Prieta, said spokesman Walt Staton.

Baldemero Garcia Canales was deported on April 2 from Phoenix, where he has lived for 18 years. He's urgently trying to get back to his wife, two U.S.-born children and his two-man landscaping business, which was still going strong despite the recession. In his latest attempt, he and a group of nine crossed near Sasabe and walked for 50 hours before being caught by the Border Patrol near Marana.

"I have to return somehow," 36-year-old Garcia said in Spanish. "I don't care if they catch me 10, 15 times, I have to return for my children."

Willing to take "bad" jobs

Illegal-immigrant workers tend to do fairly well in the recession due to their willingness to take any job, at any pay, anywhere.

"They know how to find jobs," Papademetriou said. "For so many people who are here illegally, they don't take the social worth of the job into account. In others words, there is no job too difficult to say, 'No I'll turn up my nose at it.' They are willing to take whatever job comes their way."

Ernesto Torres, 27, of Guadalajara, Mexico, fits this profile. He and his wife of seven months say they are determined to make it to the U.S. and are willing to work doing whatever and wherever. Even in a bad economy, U.S. salaries can be double or triple what he makes in Guadalajara.

"Wherever there is work, I'll go," said Torres, who worked in construction near San Francisco in his last stint in the U.S. "The Mexican economy is always worse."

Cultural rite

Emigrating north to the United States to escape poverty has become a cultural rite in Mexico.

"They are doing what their parents did, what their grandparents did," said Gonzalez, of the Aid Center for Deported Migrants in Nogales. "It's a cultural thing."

The tough times brought on by the recession don't wipe out a lifetime of seeing people make it in the United States. Some would rather pin their hopes on a U.S. recovery than a recovery in Mexico.

"They have the idea that the United States is one of the most solid economies in the world," Quintero said. "They think that once they get over there, they'll get a job."

While Papademetriou and Quintero believe many illegal immigrants don't understand the gravity of the recession here, Cornelius disagrees.

"The psychology is: If there is one employer that will give me a job, that's all I need," Cornelius said. "Kind of a lottery effect."

Cuba is confident he'll find one of those employers. Some of his relatives in New York have had to take pay cuts, but most are still working, he said.

"Good workers still have work," he said. "Bad workers do not."

On StarNet: Find more stories about the U.S.-Mexico border and illegal immigration at azstarnet/border

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or

Signs of a decline

• Apprehensions in both the Tucson Sector and along the entire Southwest border are down 37 percent from the same time period two years ago, Border Patrol figures show.

• Last month was the slowest March in the last 10 years for apprehensions in the Tucson Sector. March has been the busiest month for apprehensions each year since 1999, with the agency recording more than 45,000 apprehensions, or 1,450 a day, every year except 2003. This year, agents recorded 31,347 apprehensions, or 1,011 a day.

• Surveys conducted by the Mexican Institute of Statistics and Geography, or the Mexican Census, show that a little less than 127,000 people left Mexico in the final quarter of 2008, a 37 percent decrease from two years ago and the lowest quarterly figure since the institute began tracking this in 2006.

• The inflow of illegal immigrants slowed to about 500,000 a year from 2005 to 2008, down from 800,000 a year from 2000 to 2004, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates.

• At least two reports suggest the estimated illegal-immigrant population has decreased for the first time since 2000. Pew estimates the number fell to 11.9 million in 2008 from 12.4 million in 2007. The Department of Homeland Security estimates the total dipped to 11.6 million from 11.8 million in 2007.

Why illegal immigration has slowed

Increased border enforcement measures — including more fences, agents and technology — have contributed to the slowdown. But a decrease in available jobs in the United States is the main factor, say two immigration analysts.

Potential migrants are less likely to go if they're not assured of having a job once they get to the U.S., said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California-San Diego.

"They are here to work" said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank that advocates comprehensive immigration changes. "If you don't have jobs, after a while you'll have a bit of the return flow and the most important thing is that they won't come."

If history serves as a lesson, Cornelius said, the northbound flow will rebound as soon as the U.S. economy recovers.

Other articles by Brady Mccombs:

Nogales to be 'flagship' port of entryRecession won't stop Obama from pushing immigration overhaul Agencies gather to target cartels After years of scrutinizing traffic out of Mexico, agents now trying to sniff out guns going south Críticos: Son inútiles; partidarios: Son esenciales Border agents find woman's body near SonoitaBorder fences grow, as does debate that rages over them Border fences make critics fear for the area's wildlife Autoridades de Sonora indican que es seguro viajar para turistas UA travel warnings to Mexico still stand