So many residents of villages like Genaro Codina, in Zacatecas, Mexico, are already in the United States that it is unclear whether eased American citizenship rules would prompt any other Mexicans to try to immigrate. Photo: Adriana Zehbrauskas / The New York Times

By DAMIEN CAVE
2 April 2013

EL CARGADERO, Mexico (The New York Times) – The pretty houses in the hills here, with their bright paint and new additions, clearly display the material benefits of having millions of workers move to the United States over the past few decades. But these simple homes also reveal why another huge exodus would be unlikely: the bulk of them are empty.

All across Mexico’s ruddy central plains, most of the people who could go north already have. In a region long regarded as a bellwether of illegal immigration — where the flow of migrants has often seemed never-ending — the streets are wind-whipped and silent. Homes await returning families, while dozens of schools have closed because of a lack of students. Here in El Cargadero, a once-thriving farm community of 3,000, only a few hundred people remain, at most.

“It’s not like it used to be,” said Fermin Saldivar Ureño, 45, an avocado farmer whose 13 brothers and sisters are all in California. “I have three kids, my parents had 14. There just aren’t as many people to go.”

As Congress considers a sweeping overhaul of immigration, many lawmakers say they are deeply concerned that providing a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States would mean only more illegal immigration.

They blame the amnesty that President Ronald Reagan approved in 1986 for the human wave that followed, and they fear a repeat if Congress rewards lawbreakers and creates an incentive for more immigrants to sneak across the border.

“The big problem with immigration is convincing people in the country that it won’t turn into a 1986 endgame,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who is in the bipartisan group of senators working on a bill.

But past experience and current trends in both Mexico and the United States suggest that legalization would not lead to a sudden flood of illegal immigration on the scale of what occurred after 1986. Long-running surveys of migrants from Mexico found that work, not the potential to gain legal status, was the main cause of increased border crossings in the 1990s and 2000s. And as Mr. Saldivar points out, times have changed.

The American economy is no longer flush with jobs. The border is more secure than ever. And in Mexico the birthrate has fallen precipitously, while the people who left years ago have already sent their immediate relatives across, or started American families of their own.

“It’s a new Mexico, it’s a new United States, and the interaction between them is new,” said Katherine Donato, a sociologist at Vanderbilt University who specializes in immigration. As for Congressional action spurring a surge of illegal crossings, she added: “You’re just not going to see this massive interest. You don’t have the supply of people. You have a dangerous trip that costs a lot more money, and there has been strong growth all over Latin America. So if people in Central America are disenfranchised and don’t have jobs, as was the case in Mexico three or four decades ago, they might decide to go south.”

Of course, hundreds of thousands of people, from all over Mexico and other parts of the world, still try to reach the United States each year, and the country’s magnetism will partly depend on the details of what Congress approves. Who will be eligible? How long will they have to wait, and what barriers will lawmakers erect to prevent new immigrants from entering illegally and finding work?

Some scholars argue that granting any form of legal status encourages illegal migration because it creates a more settled immigrant class, attracting other relatives. “If that person is a green card holder, the power of that network would seem to be significantly stronger,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which advocates reduced immigration.

Many lawmakers, particularly Republicans, see the 1986 law — the Immigration Reform and Control Act — as the prime example of what can go wrong.

Billed as a sweeping effort to halt illegal immigration, it gave legal status to around 2.7 million immigrants through two programs: one for farm workers and another for immigrants who had been living in the United States since 1982. For the first few years after it passed, illegal crossings fell because migrants who had once entered the United States illegally suddenly had papers allowing them to come and go at will.

But by 1990, the flaws began to show. The documentation requirements for agricultural workers were loose enough to allow for widespread fraud, encouraging people to cross the still relatively unprotected border and apply.

More significant, experts say, work visas for Mexico’s masses of poor, young men were hard to obtain and sanctions against employers using illegal workers were rarely enforced. As a result, American companies and immigrants continued to seek each other out.

“The great wave of Mexican migration to the U.S. in the second half of the 1990s and early 2000s was driven by the abundance of jobs generated by the U.S. economic boom of this period,” said Wayne Cornelius, director emeritus of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego. “Any delayed effects of” the 1986 amnesty “were inconsequential compared with the incentives created by U.S. job growth,” he said.

Here in central Mexico, local economics and demographics also played a significant role. The collapse of the Mexican peso in 1994 and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which made it harder for Mexican farmers to make a living, pushed some families to Mexican cities and accelerated a migration pattern that would soon reshape both sides of the border. More immigrants now living in the United States come from central Mexico than from any other place in the world, according to census and survey data in both countries.

In states like Zacatecas, many areas emptied out gradually. If a visa could not be obtained, the sons and daughters of farming families crossed with smugglers, calling local radio stations back home to announce to their relatives that they had survived the journey.

“It became a way of life,” said Eduardo López Mireles, president of the municipality of Jerez, which includes El Cargadero. “There are 50,000 people from Jerez over there, and 57,000 here.”

But over the past few years, the traffic patterns have changed. In Jerez and other places, the established cross-border networks of family connections that made possible one of the greatest immigration waves in American history are either tapped out — with most close relatives already in the United States — or they are sending people home. Not only were more than 10,000 Zacatecans deported in 2012 alone, according to state figures, but thousands of others have returned voluntarily because of a lack of work.

Many of these returning migrants — like Angel Castro, 38, who was sitting on a bench wearing a watch with an American flag — say they do not intend to head north again for a shot at legalization. “It’s just too hard,” Mr. Castro said. [more]

In Mexican Villages, Few Are Left to Dream of U.S.

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