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Despite a weak economy, deportations and a tougher border, dollars keep flowing south
MIAMI — Still wearing wet clothes from a day washing dishes, Daniel Reyes walks into a Kwik Stop Food Store, marches over to the Western Union counter and hands over a folded wedge of dollar bills.
As he has been doing for the last ten months, the 24-year old Reyes wires the lion’s share of wages, made from sweating in Miami kitchens, down to his family in the town of Ixmiquilpan, Mexico.
After he posts $150 on this day, he has just enough left for his bills and food. But Reyes says that he doesn’t stop to think for a second about keeping more money.
“I’m here to work and support my family. My children and parents need food and clothes, and we are building a house down in Mexico,” Reyes says. “I know some other migrants here who go out drinking and spend all their wages. Then they send nothing back. But I could never do that. I have to send money while I can.”
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Reyes' payments are part of some $24 billion that Mexicans in the US are expected to send home to their loved ones by the end of 2011.
Remittances sent by Mexicans in September and October were more than 20 percent higher than in 2010, according to Mexico’s Central Bank, the biggest increase in five years.
Economic analysts attribute the growth of remittances to a strengthening of the dollar against the peso — which has lead to migrants taking advantage of the exchange rate.
But the growth also shows an incredible resilience in the Mexican migrant workforce, which in recent years has suffered through record deportations, tougher border enforcement and the worst US recession since the 1930s. After weathering these challenges, migrants have been well-positioned to take advantage of marginal economic improvements this year.
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“Our link to our homeland is eternal,” says Arnoldo Borja, a migrant activist based in Washington D.C. “If one person in the family can’t send anything back, then another is going to find a way.”
Remittances — which provide Mexico’s second biggest source of foreign currency after oil exports — rose steadily since the 1990s to reach a peak of $25 billion in 2006.
However, the global economic crisis in 2007 to 2008 forced many migrants out of work, particularly in the US construction industry, reducing the southern flow of dollars.
At the same time, the US government increased deportations of undocumented Mexicans and doubled the number of border patrol agents.
Migrants hoped that President Barack Obama would soften this policy, but they were sourly disappointed.
In fiscal year 2011, which ended in September, the U.S. deported a record 396,906 migrants, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Predator drones have also joined the agents on the Rio Grande.
Nevertheless, undocumented migrants say that hunger keeps driving them north, however difficult that journey is.
Reyes tried scratching out a living growing corn in Ixmiquilpan, Mexico but says it didn’t provide enough.
“I couldn’t stand to see my children without enough food. So I went to El Norte. I knew it had to better than that,” Reyes says.
Reyes crossed into the US in February by swimming over the Rio Grande south of Texas — a trip for which he was forced to pay $1,000 to a drug cartel controlling the river.
Criminal gangs have been extorting and kidnapping migrants crossing through Mexico on a terrifying scale in the last three years.
However, the tougher border has actually made many migrants spend more time in the US, as they are scared to make the journey home.
Reyes said he will not risk going to see his family for this holiday season.
“I am dying to be with my children for Christmas. But what if I end up being kidnapped or arrested? Then they will have nothing,” Reyes said.
While in the US during the holidays, migrants tend to keep working and sending money home, adding to their remittances.
In total, there are about 12 million Mexican nationals living in the United States, about half without papers, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Migrants have also been hit by tougher state laws reducing their access to certain services and documents such as drivers’ licenses.
The activist Borja says that while the more difficult environment has not reduced the number of Mexicans in the US it has created much more friction.
“I have been living in the United States for 20 years and have never seen the atmosphere as ugly as this,” Borja says. “Migrants are forced to live in the shadows, forced to moved around the country. But all they are doing is trying to provide for their families.”