Mexicans React to Immigration Crisis in America

July 19, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the immigration story as it plays on the Mexican side of the border. Ray Suarez recently visited the Mexican state of Puebla, once home to many Mexicans now living in the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: The flow of hundreds of thousands of workers every year to el norte — “the north” — was not a central feature of the recently completed presidential campaign, but it would sneak into conversations about the performance of the Mexican economy in a struggling neighborhood in Mexico City.

MEXICAN CITIZEN (through translator): Many people are just on the streets. There has to be more equality, more work for everyone, so that all of us have jobs and we don’t go to the United States and so that we’re content here.

RAY SUAREZ: In a chat with a government worker in the southern city of Toluca, who says, “Sure, it’s true Mexicans need jobs, but the U.S. needs the workers.”

JUAN MANUEL MORENO, Government Worker (through translator): There should be special treatment for Mexico and for the immigrants who go there to work to look for better employment options. I think Mexico needs that.

RAY SUAREZ: To see what immigration looks like from Mexico, visit the southern state of Puebla, which has sent its young workers north for decades; many now head to New York. In the village of Tepeaca, Isidro Juarez owns a home and a tractor and has a little money saved. He has no regrets about his own and his children’s journey north to work.

ISIDRO JUAREZ, Farmer (through translator): We were very poor. And to improve, my children had to migrate to the United States. And thanks to this, we have moved forward.

I say this with pride, because they are responsible, hard workers. I’m very proud of them. They have sent me money, here and there, but I know how to save, and that’s why we are now in the position we are in. We’re not rich, but we’re not poor, either. We’re in the middle.

Campaigns to fight migration

RAY SUAREZ: Agapito Candido Lima is a high school teacher who watches his classes dwindle in size as older teens head for New York, Los Angeles, and Houston, making the village a place of very young and very old. He looks at the promises of the recent presidential campaign to fight migration with jobs with skepticism.

AGAPITO CANDIDO LIMA, School Teacher (through translator): It's going to be impossible. It's hard to believe. Solutions to these problems can only be found in the communities themselves. Why? Because they need to learn the needs of each person.

I couldn't just go in with a magic wand if I didn't know or live within their own economic situation. It's easy to make promises, to say that they will bring jobs. But think about it: In a rural community, where people grow corn, what kind of jobs are they going to bring?

RAY SUAREZ: In the village of Tecali, some 175 miles south of Mexico City, this 16-year-old high-schooler tells a family story that illustrates Puebla State's loss of hard-working, ambitious people.

EMANUEL ANAYA, High School Student (through translator): My grandparents had seven children, and they had 25 grandchildren. And of those, about 20 to 22 live in the United States. So of those who are still here, my cousins, there are just a few of us left compared to what the size of our family used to be. There are now very few of us left.

Illegal immigration - part of life

RAY SUAREZ: Primitivo Rodriguez is an immigrants' rights activist.

PRIMITIVO RODRIGUEZ, Immigration Rights Activist: If I go to my town in Michoacan, where I was born, we have had immigrants for more than a century. If I go there and say, "Guys, brothers, no more illegal immigration to the United States," they will -- I'm sure they will think, "Primo got mad. Primo is crazy."

People in my town, we have lived off the illegal immigration for more than a century. It's part of our daily life. Illegal immigration is as natural as sunshine, moon, and seeing the fields growing with new plants, whatever. In spite of it, or precisely because Mexican immigration is so linked also to the development of the United States, that's the reason why we need to put order into this phenomenon.

RAY SUAREZ: For Rodriguez, order will be brought to the relationship by a system of short-term work permits and more security on the U.S.-Mexico border. He says sneaking into America, a business run by criminal gangs, has meant death and suffering for Mexican workers.

PRIMITIVO RODRIGUEZ: So how do I see walls, National Guard, or how do I see the U.S. border, southern border being shut? I see it as good news, because that will liberate immigrants in Mexico from the tremendous suffering that the undocumented immigrants have to carry.

If the United States needs workers, OK, fine, let these workers be legal workers, temporary workers for a month, for a year, for three years, forever, but certainly legal workers.

RAY SUAREZ: But back in Tepeaca, Isidro Juarez is skeptical of Americans' stated desire to tighten the border.

ISIDRO JUAREZ (through translator): It's not true that we take their jobs, because I've never seen a well-educated American selling corn, working at a street market, doing hard labor, demolishing homes. No, they all shun away from that. They'll cry.

If one day, like they say, they kick out all of the Mexicans, well, from what I've seen, California is full of Mexicans, and what would their employers do when their workers leave?

New Mexican President

RAY SUAREZ: And what would Mexicans do if they came home? In cities large and small, low-wage work, paying just dollars a day, attracts large numbers of workers with little training and few options.

This country has a problem: too many workers, not enough decent paying jobs. So the lowest paying work never drops out of the bottom of the labor market to be replaced by more efficient ways of buying, selling and making things.

And for now, there are perverse disincentives to change. Mechanizing agriculture would, in the short term, put even more people out of work because this economy just doesn't make enough new jobs to absorb all the new people entering the market.

And speaking of perverse disincentives, political scientist and Mexico City think-tank director Luis Rubio said work available in the United States has allowed Mexico to avoid changes needed to keep people working in their home country.

LUIS RUBIO, Political Analyst: The people who either go into the informal economy or migrated to the U.S. are people that would otherwise stay in Mexico, if we had reformed fundamental structures that allowed for creation of wealth in Mexico.

And the fact that that is not happening is, I think, an indictment of the whole system, political system of Mexico. But the irony is that, in the absence of pressure upon politicians, there is no need for them to carry out that reform. And the reason there is no pressure is because people have an alternative, and that's either the informal economy or migration to the U.S.

RAY SUAREZ: At the begin of his term, President Fox called Mexican â??migrants to the north "heroes." For Rodriguez, they're something very different.

PRIMITIVO RODRIGUEZ: We see immigrants as a shame for our country. Nobody should go to the United States in search of a better life, in search of a job they didn't have in Mexico.

Mexico has the human and natural resources to provide for a good job, a well-paying job to each one of its citizens here. But we have not taken advantage or we have not so far been able to make Mexico a good home, a good dream for everybody in the country.

RAY SUAREZ: If the result of Mexico's disputed presidential election holds up, the United States will have to deal with this man, Felipe Calderon, on the immigration issue. The conservative has indicated he'll continue his predecessor, Vicente Fox's, efforts on behalf of Mexicans living illegally in the U.S.

But in a sign that he may take a tougher line with Washington, Calderon has already criticized recent enhancements to U.S. border security. He says the solution to the migration problem is not to build walls.