Fall in fortunes

NUEVO DEXTO, Mexico — Guadalupe Bautista thought it was a miracle of God when her teenage son left this rugged hamlet in central Mexico and got work laying bricks in Florida.

With the $500 he wired home every month, she could afford meat and chicken daily, school books for her younger children and, crucially, medical help for her worsening diabetes.

But in the last six months the tap has run dry. Amid a U.S. building slump and crackdown on illegal migrants, her son is only working the odd day.

Left with the meager earnings she can make from her corn plot, Bautista has gone back to a diet of tortillas and beans while she prays for her condition — she has diabetes — not to deteriorate.

“My son made so many sacrifices to help us. But now he just can’t send money back, no matter how hard he tries,” said the 40-year-old Bautista, sitting in her wooden hut overlooking an arid sun-scorched valley.

Bautista’s fall in fortunes reflects a wider slump for Mexican migrants and their loved ones as the U.S. economy falters.

In 2008, remittances — Mexico’s biggest source of foreign income after oil — fell from $24 billion to $23 billion, the first drop since records began. Furthermore, this year the cash sent home is predicted to fall by another 15 percent, to some $20 billion, according to the Mexican Institute of Finance Executives, or IMEF.

“We can see the clear downward trend because the remittances got progressively worse throughout 2008,” said IMEF president Pedro Nunez. “By the end of the year, we were already talking about a drop of 11 percent per month.”

The slump is felt most harshly in the impoverished countryside, where northward migration has provided a lifeline for many families living on the edge.

Here in Nuevo Dexto, a community of Hnahnu Indians, the majority of young men have been trekking through deserts and rivers to toil in the United States since the late 1980s, mainly working in Georgia and Clearwater, Florida.

Migrant dollars transformed the landscape, paying for the local church, basketball court and paved road, and transforming wooden shacks into Florida-style suburban homes.

But with the slowdown, construction here has ground to a halt. Many houses are left half-built, the families living in rickety hovels beside stunted walls and piles of bricks and cement.

A crackdown on immigration is also affecting remittances. 

Resident Marcelo Hernandez, 23, was deported from the U.S. for not having papers last August after working on Clearwater building sites for five years.

“It is tough making the transition,” said Hernandez, standing on a deathly quiet road next to skinny cows napping in the heat. “It’s beautiful here but it is just so difficult. In Florida, I got paid $8 an hour. Here I am making $8 day breaking my back in corn fields.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported a record 350,000 migrants in the first nine months of 2008, up from 237,000 in the whole of 2007 and 155,000 in 2003.

The federal agents focused particularly on Florida, where there were regular raids on construction sites, superstores and other businesses known to employ undocumented migrants.

Hernandez said the raids have had a knock-on effect, prompting many workplaces to request papers, a stark contrast to the boom years of 2002 to 2007, when there were jobs on every corner with no questions asked.

Under the current crackdown, many migrants in the U.S. are becoming scared to even walk on the street, said Felipe Lopez, a migrant worker and president of the National Link for Mexicans Abroad, a non-governmental organization.

“We have helped build a great country in the United States,” Lopez said. “But when the going gets tough, Americans turn on the Mexicans. History has shown us that.”

In the Great Depression, the U.S. deported hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, including many who had actually been born in the United States, in what was known as the Mexican Repatriation. Most eventually headed back north as jobs returned.

Lopez concedes that remittances could have been better invested in Mexico in the recent boom years. “It seemed like the dollars would never run out. People spent them on food and housing but not on businesses here,” he said. “Now there is little for people to come back to.”

With few opportunities, many returning migrants turn to crime, fueling Mexico’s wave of insecurity, Lopez said.

Last year, more than 5,000 people were killed in shoot-outs and execution-style hits as drug cartels fought over billion-dollar smuggling routes and local rackets.

The slump in migrant money will put immense pressure on the Mexican government to turn its own economy around, says researcher Dan Lund, who has investigated remittances for the United Nations.

While Mexico’s market has been fairly stable in the last decade, it is still dominated by a few huge monopolies and provides very limited prospects for those at the bottom, Lund says.

“Emigration to the U.S. has long been an escape valve for many of the poorest Mexicans,” Lund said. “But as that option becomes more limited, there will be more pressure than ever on the Mexican government to change the way its country works.”