Divided Families

Divided Families: Remittances,1780


EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was reported from Tempe, Ariz., and Veracruz and Jalisco, Mexico.

Cronkite News Service

As he has done most every week for eight years, Pedro Cordova Martinez steps into El Paisano Mercado, a convenience store near his home in Tempe, Ariz., and makes his way to the back. There he encounters two cashiers standing behind a glass panel, waiting for the end-of-the-week rush.

His hands are caked with grime. Dirt has permanently darkened fingernails that reach into his pocket and pull out $100 in cash, which Martinez hands to one of the women working the counter.

The cash is just about all of the paycheck he earns working at his job in the plumbing industry.

Martinez, 21, instructs the woman to send the money to San Isidro, Veracruz, Mexico, to the mother and father he has not seen since he entered the United States illegally in 1999.

Every week, it is the same routine.

“I’m trying to make a more better life,” he said in broken English.

His parents are grateful for the money, he said. “It’s $100 here, but 1,000 pesos there. It’s a lot of money.”

Martinez is one of 6.6 million Mexican citizens living and working in the United States who send money, known as remittances, back to their families.

More than $23 billion flowed from the United States to Mexico in 2006, and a little more than that was expected to be transferred in 2007, according to the InterAmerican Development Bank.

Scraping By

For many Mexicans, the money means the difference between living on a few dollars a day and living on nothing at all.

Maria de los Angeles Escoto, 48, lives with her daughter, Juana Murillo, 18, in a hut in Jesus Maria, Jalisco, about two hours northeast of Guadalajara.

Her three sons, ages 23 to 27, live and work illegally in Arlington, Texas. They send her $60 to $100 every two to four weeks. The money helps pay for food, electricity and other basic necessities.

But to get by, Escoto and her daughter still must make clay pots by hand and sell them out of their home for three pesos each.

“Here you have to work to eat,” Escoto said.

She said she is ashamed her sons must send money back for her to live, but “it’s a necessity,” she said in Spanish.

“Here we didn’t have anything when they left. Everything here is from what they send.”
Escoto has not seen her sons since they left for the United States more than 10 years ago. It has gotten to the point that she would rather see them than have things.

“I just want to see my sons,” she said.

The Start of a Trend?

Remittances play an incredibly important role in Mexico’s economy.

Money sent from other countries is second only to cash from oil exports as a source of income, according to Banco de Mexico.

The amount of money sent back, however, is not rising as fast as it once did. During the first half of 2007, the growth rate was just 0.6 percent, compared to an average annual growth of 19.1 percent between 2003 and 2006, according to Banco de Mexico.

“It’s difficult to tell at this point if it’s even a trend,” said Aaron Terrazas, a research assistant for the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization that studies migration patterns worldwide.

But it’s not hard to guess at the cause for the stagnation: The recent downtown in the U.S. housing industry has affected a large percentage of the more than 2 million Mexicans who work in the construction industry, Terrazas said.

Remittances also could be affected by a crackdown in some states, including Arizona, on those who employ illegal immigrants.

A 2007 InterAmerican Development Bank study found that 82 percent of Mexican citizens living legally or illegally in the United States think it is now more difficult for a Latin American immigrant to get a good-paying job in the United States than it used to be. Of those who said it was more difficult, 45 percent attributed the change to immigration laws that require workers to show employers documents proving they are in the country legally.

Going Back

Alondra Cuevas Carrera, 20, returned to her native Zongolica, Veracruz, from Montgomery, Ala., in 2006 when she could no longer get work using forged documents.

If she couldn’t work, there was no reason to stay.

She and her father, Aurello Cuevas, entered the country illegally in 2005 in search of jobs that would allow them to send money back to her mother and young daughter in Veracruz.

Carrera spent $2,500 to cross the Mexican border and travel through the Arizona desert. As soon as she could, she caught a bus to Alabama, arriving in Montgomery on a Tuesday.

By the following Monday, using a fake Social Security card and work visa she bought from other Mexicans living in Alabama, she had a job in a factory making fiberglass molds.

During her 16 months in America, Carrera also worked as a bread baker and as a babysitter, typically making about $6 per hour. Aurello Carrera worked in a Honda factory, earning $8.50 an hour.

The two of them lived frugally in order to save as much money as possible.

They lived with five other people in a one-bedroom trailer. Rent totaled $300 for seven of them. Each month the Carreras spent about $50 on food and another $50 on phone calls and personal items. They didn’t buy new clothes until the ones they owned were so old they couldn’t be worn any longer.

The scrimping and saving helped. Every week father and daughter wired $100 back to Zongolica, a town of about 39,000 people.

But three months into the job, Aurello Carrera was dismissed because the company couldn’t verify his residency status. He tried to get a job at a chicken-packing factory, but his forged documents wouldn’t pass muster there either.

Tougher enforcement of immigration laws was having its effect.

With Carrera unable to support both herself and her father, the two decided to head back to Zongolica. They had sent about $10,000 to family in Mexico.

Stopping the Flow

Jack Martin couldn’t be happier that the new laws are working.

He is director of special projects for the Federation for America Immigration Reform, a national nonprofit organization that hopes to put a stop to illegal immigration and slow the pace of legal immigration to match the flow of people leaving the United States _ about 300,000 a year.

Ultimately, FAIR would like to see national immigration reform, Martin said. But until then, the organization is hoping more states will adopt laws like Arizona’s Legal Arizona Workers Act that went effect Jan. 1. The act punishes employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

“Given the lack of agreement in Washington, it is not only appropriate but responsible for local officials to take measures into their own hands,” Martin said.

He sees the slowdown in remittances as a good thing _ and a sign that laws are starting to be enforced.

“Remittances are a drag on the U.S. economy because it removes money that would otherwise be invested locally,” he said.

A Long History

Remittances have played a part in both the U.S. and Mexican economies for decades, said Paul Espinoza, a professor in transborder Chicano/a and Latino/a studies at Arizona State University.

Mexican citizens living and working in the United States began sending money home in large numbers after World War II, Espinoza said. The trend kept growing into the 1960s and 1970s.

“Certainly by the ’80s it was a very substantial number,” he said.

But since the mid-1990s, things have begun to change. Until then, seasonal migration was the norm, Espinoza said. Migrants would come to the United States for a few months at a time to work, and they would take their money with them when they left.

“Pre-1994 there was a much more significant back and forth seasonal migration,” he said. “But starting in the mid-90s, people essentially started to stay much longer. They didn’t want to have to face going back to the U.S.”

Espinoza believes that increased border enforcement has actually kept legal and illegal Mexican citizens in the United States _ thus driving up remittances.

For example, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when it became harder to cross U.S. borders, “the assumption was there would be a drop, but it was contradictory… The amounts increased,” said Peter Bate, a spokesman for the InterAmerican Development Bank.

In fact, from 2001 to 2002, not only did the number of transactions and volume of remittances increase, but the average amount sent in each transaction grew from $321 to $328.

Around the same time, Bank of America began a program making it easier for Hispanics living in the United States to send money back to families in Mexico.

SafeSend, which started in 2002, allowed users to set up checking and savings accounts to transfer funds via ATM, phone or online for a flat fee to more than 4,500 locations throughout Mexico, said Diane Wagner, a spokeswoman for Bank of America.

The program was revamped in September 2005 to allow money to be paid in cash, Wagner said. Transfer fees also were eliminated.

Wagner said Bank of America decided to make the changes after hearing from members of the Hispanic community “that they wanted to put more money in the hands of family members in Mexico with less fees.”

In 2005 the Banco de Mexico and the Federal Reserve banks teamed up to create Directo a Mexico, a program aimed to help U.S. financial institutions assist customers in remitting funds to Mexico. The program provides institutions with Spanish-language marketing materials for customers.

‘Don’t Come Home’

It took Martinez 10 tries before he successfully crossed the border from Mexico into Naco, Ariz.

He was just 14, and he was intent on joining his brother, who had made the trip two years before and was doing well and sending money home.

Even after several years here, Martinez thought of his stay as temporary _ until his father was shot in the lower back. Martinez desperately wanted to return to San Isidro as his father hovered between life and death.

But a return visit meant no money to pay his father’s medical bills, and there was no guarantee he would be able to get back into the United States.

“No, don’t come home,” his mother told him. “Send more money.”

Martinez reconsidered. “I’d like to go home, but what am I going to do once I get there?” he said.

Staying and working in the United States is best for everyone.

“We’re better here,” he said. “We’re doing better here. My family’s doing better there.”


PHOTOS: Click thumbnails to see full-resolution images and download

Maria de Los Angeles Escoto, 48, smooths the edges of a pot. The pots, which she sells for three pesos each, help her supplement the money she gets from her sons who work illegally in Arlington, Texas. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Deanna Dent)

Many of the nicest homes in Jesus Maria, Mexico, were built with remittance money, or money sent back to Mexico from those working in the United States. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Deanna Dent)

This house is typical of those in Zacatecas, Mexico, that were built on remittance dollars. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Branden Eastwood)

This house is among the many in Zacatecas, Mexico, built with money sent from the U.S. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Branden Eastwood)

A remittance house (left) contrasts with a traditional Mexican home next door in Jesus Maria, Jalisco, Mexico. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Deanna Dent)