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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Migrants struggling for work in Texas return to Mexico as a burden

The Dallas Morning News
Monday, February 1, 2010

CORRAL DE PIEDRAS, Mexico – The leader of this community has a message for its native sons and daughters who work in Texas and dream of returning home: Don't do it. You'll regret it.

To make her point, she has the perfect example: her husband.

Teresa Cadena Moreno, 34, the mayor's delegate in this farming community of 5,000 people in central Guanajuato state, has noticed a troubling trend over the past few months. With the slowdown in the U.S. economy, she is seeing a rising number of expatriates returning home. They're not coming just for a Christmas visit or town
celebration, but with every intention of staying permanently. And that has the town in a bind.

They come back with more expectations than they left with. They want better public services – roads, schools, sewer systems – and, more important, jobs. Some complain about the lack of drinking water. Their children often speak only English or broken Spanish.

"It's not easy," Cadena said. "We're a poor community that relies on the remittances of our migrants, not on them returning home to stay."

It's not easy for the returnees, either.

Last fall, Cadena's husband, Jaime Hernández, 32, returned home after working in construction in Tyler. He had every intention of staying put for a while, if not permanently.

As a painter in Texas, Hernández made in one day what he makes here in a week, roughly $100, he said. Yes, food is cheaper here and his home is paid for, but after a few weeks "you miss a good steak," he said.

"You have to watch every peso you spend," he said. "Here you fight to maintain whatever you have, not necessarily to get ahead."

In the third quarter of 2009, the Mexican government recorded an unusual trend: 108,078 emigrants returned home to stay, up 30 percent from 2008. The trend was expected to continue through the fourth quarter, though those numbers haven't been released yet.

Meanwhile, money sent home by Mexicans abroad plunged a record 15.7 percent in 2009, a reflection of the sluggish U.S. economy. Remittances are Mexico's No. 2 source of foreign income after oil, totaling $21.2 billion in 2009 compared with $25.1 billion in 2008, according to the central bank.

For a country that says it wants to see its emigrants return home, these trends put Mexico in a quandary.

For more than two decades, the Mexican government has been trying to re-establish bonds with Mexicans living abroad.

The government even has an agency, the Office for Mexicans Abroad, with a campaign that in part aims not just to lure return investment in Mexico, but to encourage emigrants to return home. Just not now.

"There are a lot of pretty, nostalgic words spoken by the Mexican government," said Primitivo Rodríguez, director of the Coalition for the Political Rights for Mexicans Abroad.

"But where is the substance? The question really is, 'How can Mexico reserve a job for you, immigrant, when the government can't even guarantee a job for your cousin or brother back home?' "

Mexico's long, devastating recession and drought have left millions unemployed or underemployed.

Even as President Felipe Calderón declares the recession officially over, it will take time for many municipalities to rise from financial ruin. Last year, the National Association of Mayors reported that more than 70 percent of Mexico's 2,439 municipalities were broke or near bankruptcy.

Corral de Piedras is no exception.

Jesús Ramírez Ramírez, 42, worked in construction throughout the southeastern United States but returned home last year when work became scarce. Now he sells corn on the cob for 10 pesos, about 90 cents, each.

"There's not much work here either. ... I'd like to go back, but it's hard," he said, pointing to one of his seven children.

And the returning emigrants add to the strain on the community, Cadena said.

"We don't have enough room in our schools, much less bilingual teachers, as some students arrive speaking English, and they can't fit in," she said.

"I don't want to sound ungrateful or offensive," she said, "because here almost everyone has a relative living in the United States."

Cadena runs a neighborhood grocery store with help from the money her husband has sent from the U.S. Recently, she said, he has been edgy, staying up late at night, worried about the difficulty of making a living at home. Finally, he told his wife he had decided to leave again.

"Being away from my wife, my kids, my hometown is very painful," Hernández said. "Living apart is no life. But so is living without a good-paying job."