Correction to This Article
An April 17 article about economic forces driving migration from Mexico gave incorrect figures on the country's gross domestic product. In terms of 2005 dollars, Mexico's GDP grew from $767 billion in 1993 to $1 trillion in 2005.

Behind the Debate: Propelled to Protest, Driven to Migrate

Jose B. Flores crossed into the United States illegally 10 years ago.
Jose B. Flores crossed into the United States illegally 10 years ago. (Manuel Roig-franzia - Twp)

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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 17, 2006

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico -- Beanfields and a stooped back, callused hands and an empty wallet were all Jose B. Flores could envision for himself in Salvatierra, a dusty smudge of a place in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. Such was the lot of his father, a weary sort who collapsed each night of exhaustion and died young, and such was the lot of his father's father.

Flores escaped his certain fate 10 years ago, slipping -- at the reckless age of 15 -- across the U.S. border south of San Diego. It all seemed too easy until a traffic stop earlier this month in Wisconsin set off a chain of events that led to his deportation and landed him in a church-run help center in this windy desert city across the West Texas border from El Paso.

Flores's return to Mexico comes at a time when immigration is dominating public discourse in Washington, but it is his original flight a decade ago that helps explain how the current immigration crisis came to be. He left Mexico in the mid-1990s when the country's already troubled economy was being overwhelmed by young men who were reaching working age but had little or no hope of finding decent employment.

Conventional wisdom has long explained the flood of migrants with a simple formula: Mexicans and other Latin Americans come to the United States for better-paying jobs. But the calculus is more complex because of pressure caused by Mexico's population explosion, which turned Flores's generation into one of the most desperate for work in modern Mexican history. Mexico's failure to create enough jobs after the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement pushed countless young people to migrate to the United States, while a growing U.S. demand for labor pulled them north.

Flores, born in 1979, is a product of Mexico's 1970s baby boom, a time when Mexican President Luis Echevarría said, " G obernar es poblar " -- to govern is to populate. Since 1970, Mexico's population has doubled. More important, the population of 15- to 34-year-olds -- the prime migrating years -- has swollen to 38 million, according to U.S. Census figures on foreign populations. That age group is projected to exceed 40 million in 2015. Mexican economists say this is almost certain to push more Mexicans across the border, further intensifying the United States' already heated immigration debates, unless Mexico's economy dramatically improves.

"You can't put a brake to it," said Jorge Santibáñez, president of El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a Tijuana-based research institute. "The central point is that migration is going to continue at the rhythm we have now, or increase."

NAFTA's Early Promise

NAFTA was supposed to be more than a trade deal. One of the big selling points before it was approved -- emphasized in a White House launch featuring then-President Bill Clinton and three of his predecessors, Republicans George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter -- was that the pact could stem illegal immigration. Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari made the same pitch.

The presidents got their deal in 1993. But immigration surged anyway.

By 1999, about five years after NAFTA's implementation, 656,000 undocumented migrants were streaming into the United States -- a 66 percent increase over 1992 -- according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center. Overall, the center found, nearly 1.6 million immigrants crossed the border that year, and more than one-third of them were Mexican. In 2003, the overall flow slipped back to about 1 million -- including 417,000 undocumented -- but the figure has been climbing since, and neared 1.2 million -- with 455,00 undocumented -- in 2004, the center found.

Pew now estimates the undocumented population in the United States at a record level, between 11.5 million and 12 million. More than half, about 6.2 million, are Mexican, according to Pew. Mexicans account for even larger majorities in border states and in some large urban centers far from the border such as Chicago. But they make up only a small fraction of the migrant population in the Washington area, where Central Americans, particularly Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Hondurans, predominate.

The overall Hispanic population has also been growing, with nearly 38 million Hispanics in the United States, of whom two-thirds -- or 25.3 million -- were Mexican, according to a 2002 U.S. Census report. The increase has knitted the United States more tightly to its southern neighbors as more and more Hispanics lead dual-country existences, legally working or studying in the United States while maintaining family and business ties in their home countries.

The money generated by Latinos working in the United States seals the bond: Remittances from legal and illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States top $20 billion a year, close to double the foreign business investment in Mexico, according to Rafael Fernandez de Castro, a Mexico City international relations specialist.


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