In a typical year, the young men in this agricultural region of western Mexico would have made the journey north to America. But not this year or for this generation: a better future across the border is a promise they no longer trust.
“For years, we dreamed of America, but now that dream is no good,” says 18-year-old Pedro Morales, sitting in the elegant Spanish colonial square of Comala under the shadow of the spectacular Volcan de Fuego. “There are no jobs and too many problems. We don’t want to go.”
In an historic shift, the tide of immigration from Mexico to the US has stalled. Villages that were empty of young men are now full. A report published by the Pew Hispanic Center this week confirmed what was already anecdotally clear: the largest wave of immigration in US history has stalled and is now close to slipping into reverse.
Between 2005 and 2010, 1.4 million Mexicans immigrated to the United States, less than half the number that migrated between 1995 and 2000. At the same time, the number of Mexicans who moved to Mexico over the same period rose to 1.4 million, double the number over the previous five years.
Other research groups in the field say the narrowing gap in wages and relative costs of living between Mexico and the US, as well as improving education standards in Mexico, has tipped the calculation back.
“The great migration of the past five decades has been slowing for a decade,” says Doug Massey, founder of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University. “We’ve been at a point of stasis since 2009.”
On the US side, election year tough-on-immigration rhetoric has obscured the subtleties of the US-Mexico relationship.
But in Mexico, increased border controls on the US side, as well as controversial anti-immigrant legislation passed in states like Alabama and Arizona, are only overt signals that the US may have entered a period of sustained hostility toward its southern, economically vital neighbour.
Potential migrants say the border is not itself a dissuading factor, but racial discrimination and hostility, efforts to deny employment, education and healthcare are, as is increased exposure to arrest and deportation.
“The reason they’re coming home is because they have no options, no papers, and the laws are more aggressive,” says Fernando Morett, a shopkeeper in the coastal town of Chiutlan. “It’s complicated, and people are debating it. If they don’t have friends in the US and they have to pay to cross the line, it’s not worth it.”
For Mexicans already in the US, the decision to return is still fraught with uncertainty. “But at least here they have the option of food and shelter, and they suffer less than in the US,” says Morett.
The turnaround is striking. While studies that show migrant workers are net economic contributors and form the bedrock of construction, farming and catering during boom years, there is evidence the crackdown is creating a new underclass.
“It’s a huge drag on social and economic mobility in the country if you’ve got no rights whatsoever,” says Massey. Economic improvement in Mexico and across Latin America, coupled with declining fertility rates (from an average of seven children in 1960 to just over two now) suggests the region may soon no longer have a surplus workforce.
Further, the hardened US attitudes toward foreigners is keenly felt. Cesar Castellano, a taxi driver waiting for a fare in Comala, describes how his brother worked eight years at the same California restaurant.
“One morning the police came and searched everyone. He had no papers so they took him to the border at Tijuana. They wouldn’t let him see his family or collect his things. The restaurant gave him nothing. Now he’s working in construction here.”
The choice to stay home appears to have little to with the ongoing militarisation of the long US-Mexico border that started in the mid-1980s. The border now costs $3.5bn annually in fence construction and technology that includes drones and motion sensors. Critics say it’s an effective local employment boon – the number of border agents has tripled in recent years – but little more: the measures do not in themselves dissuade migrants.
Expansive new detention cells at typical border crossing are reported virtually empty. “We will always get over we want to,” says one of the young men in Colama. “If there were better opportunities in the US, we would go.”
David Fitzgerald, an immigration expert at the University of California San Diego, believes that 95% of those who attempt the crossing succeed. He believes border controls have inadvertently contributed to the ferocity of the cartel wars on the Mexican side – an insurgency that has killed 50,000 over the past four years.
The mom-and-pop “coyote” operations that once ran migrants across the border have been pushed out replaced by sophisticated operations that pay dues to the cartels for crossing their territory. Costs of a cross-border transport have risen $2,500, a ten-fold increase in a decade.
“More agents has led to more coyotes, and it’s a more lucrative and complex business,” says Fitzgerald. “The gangs are not directly involved in people-smuggling, but they’re paid for the rights to cross their territory. Along the Gulf Coast, the Zetas have been preying on Central American migrants.”
But in Mexico’s rural towns, young men watch reports on TV of the violence in Ciudad Juarez and Monterrey and share anecdotes of migrants going missing with only their luggage ever turning up or of being Tasered by border control on the US side.
At Jalisco, traditionally one of the main sending states, the effects of border issues are keenly felt. Families are split when parents who lack papers are separated from their US-born children. Instead of being repatriated, apprehended migrants are subjected to periods of detention; penalties for overstaying on migrant worker visas have increased with longer periods of disbarment. Temporary work visas, while more plentiful, are also expensive to apply for.
With remaining migrants struggling for employment in the US, they’re less likely to be able to raise the steep fees to bring friends and family over. In Jalisco, that lack of opportunity has also given gangs opportunity for Mafia-style loan sharking and protection rackets tied to the state’s rival gangs, Los Nueva Generacion and pseudo-religious Knights Templar, which recently proclaimed it would stop the violence for the duration of the pope’s visit.
“The guys want money but they can’t go to America to make it. So then they lend it or demand money for protection, and that causes more problems,” says Castellano. “Perhaps it would be better everyone if they just opened the border.”
But in the current political and economic environment, he admits, that’s unlikely.