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Friday, January 21, 2011

Improved economy has many Latinos returning to Mexico

Napa Valley Register
January 19, 2011

Marbin Escalante, 26, and Olman Martínez, 32, both of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, sit together for a dinner of beans and tortillas on a recent night at the Calistoga Farmworker Housing Center.

The workers reminisced about their recent holiday spent at home and the family and friends they left behind. They estimate about 20 regulars at the Calistoga center from Mexico don’t plan to return to the Napa Valley this year.

“They spent some time here and they haven’t come back,” Escalante said. “They have their family, or they stayed to get married. Some don’t have papers and returning is very difficult.”

Seasonal workers from Mexico have more reason to stay home this year as the Mexican economy improves. While Napa and the rest of the U.S. struggle to add jobs and jolt the economy back to pre-recession levels, Mexico created 730,348 jobs in 2010, the highest number in 14 years, Mexican officials announced this month.

At the same time, a record number of people were deported from the U.S. in 2010.

Some friends who usually make the trip back to Napa Valley vineyards for pruning season have stayed home, the diners at the Calistoga Farmworker Housing Center said.

Daniel Alvarez-Garcia, 19, of Mexico City, mentioned two friends who will stay in Mexico this year to work as a taxi driver and a florist instead of making the trek to Calistoga.

They’ll stay in Mexico “not so much because the economy is good, but because rent and food is so expensive here,” he said.

Despite the high cost of living in Calistoga, Garcia plans to send $800 a month home to his family in El Centro, the central neighborhood of Mexico City.

The employment outlook in Mexico might not be as rosy as the job-creation number suggests. The manufacturing, service and commerce sectors in Mexico were the top creators of jobs in 2010, but the average salary for those new jobs was only $19.29 (232 pesos) a day.

Many seasonal workers at the Calistoga Farmworker Housing Center plan to keep sending money to families south of the border, they said.

Unemployment in Mexico persists. It fell slightly to 5 percent at the end of 2010 from a peak of 6.4 percent in September 2009, according to the Mexican government.

By comparison, Napa County’s unemployment rate was 10 percent in November, the most recent number released by state officials.

While it’s difficult to understand the full impact of an improved Mexican economy on Napa County, it does have the power to stimulate business locally, said Lisa Batto, CEO of the Napa Chamber of Commerce.

“Because we are 45 percent Latino, that has ramifications for Napa,” Batto said. “Our economy can grow.”

Often, workers who came to Napa yearly for jobs are now staying in Mexico due to the danger of border crossing or because they were deported, local immigration experts said.

The U.S. reported a record number of deportations — 392,862 — in the 2010 fiscal year, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Immigration officials attribute this increase to Secure Communities, the program in U.S. jails that enforces the checking of fingerprints against immigration records with every inmate booked. Secure Communities was implemented in Napa County Jail last August.

As a result, the largest increase in U.S. deportations was among convicted criminals. There was a 46.6 percent increase in convicted criminals deported from the U.S. to Mexico from fiscal year 2009 to 2010, according to ICE data.

Out of the San Francisco ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Office, which is also responsible for Napa County, the overall number of deported criminals increased slightly to 9,684 and non-criminal deportations decreased slightly to 6,055 in 2010.

Once deported, the newly repatriated “don’t have any other option than to start their own business,” said Teresa Foster, an immigration consultant in Napa. “A lot of them say, ‘Okay, I’m here, let’s face the fact that my family needs to eat.’ In Mexico, “The job situation is hard, so a lot of times they have to create their own jobs.”

Others have created jobs in Mexico deliberately.

Angel Calderon manages the River Ranch Farmworker Camp in St. Helena and also manages a factory in his hometown Timbinal in the state of Guanajuato, where he employs about 70 workers in the 600-population town.

In addition to producing robes, towels and baby clothes since 1999, the workers have recently started learning design, sales and marketing during work hours to increase their opportunities for advancement.

“You turned around in my community, and you wouldn’t have seen a place to work,” Calderon said. “They were pretty hopeless.”

Even still, many poor states in Mexico have bleak employment prospects, he said. But the lackluster job situation in the U.S. doesn’t always have the same draw it once did.

“To cross the border illegally right now is very dangerous, very expensive and it’s not worth it,” Calderon said.