U.S. business magnate, and would-be politician Donald Trump has repeatedly promised to completely seal the U.S.-Mexico border with a wall if he is elected President, and has vowed that he would make Mexico pay for the expense. At present, the parts of the border not already walled or fenced off have security via border guards, drones and scanners.
Border fence near Campo, California. Credit: Fred Greaves/Reuters
The National Geographic article has photographs taken by James Whitlow Delano, who has visited the border several times in the past decades as the walls have gone up.
One photo shows the border wall separating Jacumba, California, from Jacume, Mexico, in the high desert. Until September 2001, several years after the first border barricade was built here in the mid-1990s, “residents of Jacume could cross freely into Jacumba to buy groceries or to work, and children would be brought across to go to school or to the health clinic.” Now, what was formerly a 10-minute walk has become a 2-hour drive through the official border crossing at Tecate.
Another photo shows the infamous Smuggler’s Gulch fence, part of a 60-million-dollar project to ensure security between San Diego and Tijuana by completing a triple line of fencing.
The photos are thought-provoking images of one of the world’s most significant land borders. The situation along the border has changed dramatically in recent years. When the first fences were built, Mexican migration to the U.S. was on the rise. Now, however, the net flow of people between the two countries each year is close to zero:
Remittances sent home by Mexican migrants (almost all of them residing in the USA) rose to $2.26 billion in March 2015, 7.6% higher than the same month a year earlier. This was the highest monthly figure since May 2012, and the highest ever figure for March.
The average remittance sent to Mexico in March 2015 was $311.30, the highest figure since July 2012, and the number of transfers was 7.25 million.
The March figure brought the total remittances for the first quarter of this year to $5.7 billion, 4.9% higher than the same period in 2014.
Workers in California sent remittances worth $1.59 billion home during the first three months of this year, more than the workers in any other state. Texas came in second place with $763.9 million and Illinois placed third at $199.3 million.
The three main receiving states in Mexico were:
Michoacán – $603 million
Jalisco – $539 million
Guanajuato – $509 million
For an introduction to the topic of remittances, with links to some of the key posts on this blog, see
We have frequently commented on the importance of migration channels linking specific towns in Mexico to particular places in the USA.
In his latest book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, journalist Sam Quinones, one of our favorite writers about Mexico, describes the fascinating details of how one particular migration channel – from the small, nondescript town of Xalisco in the western state of Nayarit, to the city of Denver – has fueled an innovative delivery network for black tar heroin, a network that now spreads its tentacles across much of the USA.
Quinones relates the work of narcotics officer Dennis Chavez, who joined the narcotics unit of the Denver Police Department, and was determined to understand the reasons behind the escalation of black tar heroin dealing. Chavez listened carefully to his informants and a key breakthrough came when one particular informant told Chavez that while “the dealers, the couriers with backpacks of heroin, the drivers with balloons of heroin”, all looked very random and scattered, they were not. They were all connected. “They’re all from a town called Xalisco.”
Indeed they were, and the system they had set up was enterprising, innovative, and designed to avoid undue attention.
Sam Quinones’ latest book is a gripping account of many previously murky aspects of the U.S. drug scene. It should interest anyone who wants to understand the human stories behind drug trafficking, international migration and globalization. A must-read!
OtherComments Off on Mexico and Ireland: a St. Patrick’s Day special
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we offer this short list of references highlighting some of the more significant connections between Ireland and Mexico.
Séamus Ó Fógartaigh in his “Ireland and Mexico“, published in Irish Migration Studies in Latin America by the Society for Irish Latin American Studies (based, curiously, in Switzerland) looks at the early links between Ireland and Mexico, including suggestions that the travels of St. Brendan the Navigator may have inspired Christopher Columbus and that the famous “Plumed Serpent” of Mexican mythology may have originated from the deification of an Irish monk.
Much better known are the later links. During colonial times, several of the Spanish administrators sent to New Spain (now Mexico) were direct descents of Irish exiles to Spain. They include the 63rd and last Spanish Viceroy of New Spain Juan O’Donojú (formerly O’Donoghue) who arrived in the New World shortly before Mexico became Independent in 1821.
A generation later, Irish soldiers who chose to leave (deserted) the US army formed the backbone of Mexico’s St. Patrick’s Battalion (Batallón San Patricio) which fought the invading Americans in 1846-48. They are especially remembered for their bravery in the Battle of Churubusco (in Mexico City) in 1847. Their story is well remembered by Mexicans today, their exploits commemorated every year at a ceremony in Mexico City, and the basis of several books and the movie “One Man’s Hero.” For a summary account, try The St. Patricio Battalion, The Irish Soldiers of Mexico by Jaime Fogarty, published in UNAM’s Voices of Mexico magazine, April-June, 2000.
San Patricio Melaque (Google Earth)
On the Jalisco coast, the small town of San Patricio Melaque (around the bay from Barra de Navidad and the Isla de Navidad tourist development) holds an annual fiesta that celebrates both the town’s patron saint and the achievements of the Irish soldiers. Nine days of activity (church services, fireworks, parades, bullfights, fairground games) come to a climax on 17 March. (It is sometimes claimed that San Patricio Melaque is the only settlement named San Patricio in Mexico, but that is not quite true, since there are at least three others: two tiny hamlets called San Patricio, relatively close to Cd. Victoria in Tamaulipas, and one named San Patricio de la Mesa in the mountains east of Hermosillo in Sonora.)
In the twentieth century, Álvaro Obregón (family name O’Brien) was President of Mexico from 1920 to 1924. (We will take a critical look at his relationship with the indigenous Yaqui Indians of Sonora in a later post). The city of Ciudad Obregón in Sonora is named in his honor. Artists of Irish descent also impacted Mexico’s national life. They included architect, painter and muralist Juan O’Gorman (1905-1982), responsible for the monumental mosaic that adorns the walls of the National University (UNAM) Library in Mexico City, and a striking, colorful mural in Pátzcuaro that depicts an erupting volcano; this mural was completed just one year before the unexpected eruption nearby of Paricutín Volcano.
Today, according to Wikipedia, there are between 300,000 and 600,000 people of Irish descent living in Mexico, mostly in either northern Mexico or Mexico City.
Dr. Michael Hogan has done far more than most to publicize the links between Ireland and Mexico. In this 8 minute Youtube video clip, he talks to an Irish radio show host about the San Patricios, Irish and Mexican history, music and tequila.
Most of the links we’ve described might never have happened if Mexico had not sent an unwanted export to Ireland in the middle of the nineteenth century. The census of 1841 in Ireland recorded a population of about 8 million. The staple Irish food at that time was the humble potato and Ireland’s rapid population growth during the early part of the nineteenth century was based on the so-called “potato economy”. Ireland was bursting at the seams in 1841, but just a decade later, after the potato famine, the population had fallen to 6.5 million. The cause of the Irish potato famine was a water mold (Phytophthora infestans) that originated in Mexico and crossed the Atlantic in the 1840s, reaching Europe in 1845 before rapidly spreading across the continent to reach Ireland.
If a Mexican water mold had not provoked the Irish potato famine, maybe there would have been no settlements named San Patricio in Mexico today, and no cause to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Mexico! Wherever you may be, have a very Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Kudos to The Economist for its short piece entitled “Old Mexico lives on” in which it points out that Mexicans and their descendents are gradually reoccupying the territory that the USA gained from Mexico in the nineteenth century. The evidence is provided by the map (below) showing “Mexican-origin population” by county for the USA. The definition is by ethnicity (origin), not citizenship.
Mexican-origin population living in USA. Source: Economist, 1 Feb 2014. Click to enlarge.
In February 1848, Mexico was forced to cede more than half its territory to the USA. The area handed over included most of present-day Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, plus parts of several other states. (Texas had declared its independence from Mexico in 1836).
Note the close correlation between areas that were part of Mexico prior to 1848 and those that now have the highest numbers of residents of Mexican-origin. As The Economist points out, “communities have proved more durable than borders”. Mexican migrants have been preferentially attracted to areas that were originally Hispanic, and where some residents can “trace their roots to long before the map was redrawn”. As The Economist concludes, “They didn’t jump the border—it jumped them.”
Figures from Mexico’s central bank (Banco de México) show that the value of remittances sent home by Mexicans working in the USA fell 3.75% in 2013, compared to the previous year.
Annual remittance totals in billions of dollars:
2013 – 21.596
2012 – 22.438
2011 – 22.802
2010 – 21.303
Trends in remittance payments are closely linked to trends in the US economy, so the slight fall in the past two years is no great surprise, as the US economy struggles to regain growth following the 2008 financial crisis.
There are some positive signs. Despite the decline over the year as a whole, the month of December saw remittances entering Mexico of 1.8 billion dollars, higher than any December since 2007.
In the last quarter of 2013, remittance payments were 3.46% higher than for the same period in 2012 (mainly due to a higher number of remittance payments), suggesting that remittance payments may now be on the rise again. The average amount remitted during the last quarter of 2013 was 285.34 dollars, 3.8% less than the average for the equivalent period in 2012.
Note: These remittance figures quantify only remittances sent via “formal” channels such as banks, and do not include informal payments carried directly back to Mexico by family or friends.
As the article points out, “Once, border cities like Mexicali (population 700,000) were flooded with newcomers trying to go north. Today, they are filling with obstinate deportees, cut off from U.S.-born children, jobs and car payments, adrift in a kind of stateless purgatory that is beyond the United States but not really in Mexico either. They face a U.S. border that is tougher and more expensive to cross than ever.”
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency deported more than 400,000 migrants in the 2012 fiscal year, and close to 370,000 in 2013, about two-thirds of them to Mexico. Mexican government statistics for that time frame show that more than 110,000 were “repatriated” to Mexicali, even though it was not their point of origin, or even the closest Mexican border city to where they were detained.
According to the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SRE) the deportees from the USA in 2012 included 13,454 unaccompanied Mexican minors under the age of 18.
After studying 22 countries with sizable retirement communities, International Living (a consultancy group) rated Mexico as the fourth most attractive country for foreigners to retire to in 2013, after Ecuador, Panama and Malaysia. The study looked at eight factors: real estate, benefits for retired people, cost of living, integration, entertainment, health, infrastructure and climate.
According to the US Census Bureau, there are 41 million people of retirement age in the USA. More than half of them have annual incomes of between 70,000 and 150,000 dollars, and they are expected, on average, to live to the age of 83; 80% are home owners. This number will swell to 72.8 million by 2030, 40% of whom may have difficulties maintaining their previous lifestyles during retirement. Given its proximity, this makes Mexico an attractive destination for many baby-boomers seeking a comfortable retirement lifestyle.
But where in Mexico will these retirees choose to live?
According to this analysis by the consultancy Aregional, there are 36 specific areas in Mexico where the real estate market is targeting US baby boomers seeking a place to retire. About half of these locations (see map) are in central and western Mexico. Locations in these regions include Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende (both in the state of Guanajuato), Colima, Comala and Manzanillo (Colima); Chapala, Ajijic and Puerto Vallarta (Jalisco); and Nuevo Vallarta and Punta Mita (Nayarit).
Locations of retiree real estate developments. Credit: Aregional
Locations in northern Mexico important for retiree real estate include Rosarito, Ensenada and Los Algodones (Baja California); Los Cabos, La Paz and Loreto (Baja California Sur); Puerto Peñasco (Sonora) and Mazatlán (Sinaloa). [Kudos to RickS for noticing that Puerto Peñasco is not located very accurately!]
Retiree real estate is also prominent in several places in the south and south-east of Mexico, including Acapulco and Punta Ixtapa (Guerrero); Huatulco (Oaxaca); Playa del Carmen and Cancún (Quintana Roo); Puerto Progreso (Yucatán), as well as the cities of Campeche and Veracruz.
It is not known how many US retirees have already chosen to live in Mexico. While it is relatively easy to quantify the number of retiree tourists (those staying more than one night, but less than six months), it is impossible to accurately quantify the number of non-working, non-Mexicans who have chosen to relocate full-time to Mexico. Technically, these “residential tourists” are not really tourists at all but longer-term migrants holding residency visas.
Residential tourists already form a very distinct group in several Mexican towns and cities, with lifestyle needs and spending patterns that are very different from those of regular tourists. Their additional economic impact is believed to exceed $500 million a year.
In response to severe labor needs during the second world war, the governments of Mexico and the USA initiated the Bracero guest worker program in 1942. The program enabled Mexico to contribute to the war effort by sending temporary agricultural workers to the USA. Mexicans were granted renewable six month visas to work on selected farms. Most migrants under the Bracero program came from the same three states, Michoacán, Jalisco and Guanajuato. They worked mostly in California and other states along the Mexican border.
As a result of the Bracero program, some farmers in the USA became very dependent on relatively cheap Mexican labor. The program was considered a great success by farmers. Unfortunately mistreatment of Bracero laborers was widespread. In protest, the Mexican Government threatened to stop the flow of migrants. During the war many Mexicans who were not recruited under the Bracero program entered the USA illegally looking for work. Tolerance for unauthorized migration developed on both sides of the border. With a large dependency in the USA on Mexican farm workers and a large supply in Mexico, there was virtually no way to put a halt to this migration stream.
Labor unions, churches and Latino groups in the USA opposed the Bracero program on the grounds that it held down farm wages and impeded the upward mobility of US Hispanics. They convinced the US Congress to halt the Bracero program in 1964. Between 1942 and 1964 an estimated 4.5 million Mexican Bracero workers entered the USA. At its height in the late 1950s more than 500,000 workers migrated each year. Most were temporary migrants who returned to Mexico within a year, often settling in larger cities, exacerbating the flow of migrants from rural areas to the growing cities. The Bracero program set the stage for the continued high volume of Mexican labor migration to the USA.
In an effort to ensure that the Bracero workers were only temporary migrants to the USA, the US government withheld 10% of all their earnings. The US government then remitted this amount to the Mexican government for payment to the workers on their return home. More than 70 years after the Bracero program started, many braceros are still trying to claim money that they earned legitimately years ago and that is still owed to them by the Mexican government.
The struggles of temporary bracero workers who were never repaid the 10% that had been withheld, are detailed in a short October 2013 article entitled “Bracero Guestworkers, Unpaid”, written by Adam Goodman and Verónica Zapata Rivera (history doctorate students at, respectively, the University of Pennsylvania and Mexico’s National Autonomous University).
The article also describes some of the other injustices faced by Bracero workers, including forced whole-body fumigation with DDT as they crossed the US border.
Using recent World Bank data, the Pew Research Center conducted an in-depth analysis of remittances sent from the USA to Latin American countries.
Remittances to Mexico peaked at over $30 billion in 2006, but as a result of the Great Recession, have declined by roughly 29% to an estimated $22 billion in 2013. (The analysis is based on constant 2013 US dollars).
Figure 1 of Pew Report. Shaded area is period of recession.
On the other hand, remittances to all other Latin American countries reached almost $31 billion in 2008, declined slightly but were up to almost $32 billion in 2013 (see graph).
Note that the data are for remittances sent through formal channels such as banks and formal money transfer businesses. The average cost of sending these formal remittances is significant, an estimated 7.3% in late 2013. If all informal remittances were included, the remittances to Mexico would be an estimated 50% higher, or over $30 billion.
The study focuses particular attention on Mexico because it receives more than 40% of all remittances from the USA to Latin America. Mexico ranks 4th worldwide in total remittances, behind India ($71 billion), China ($60 billion) and the Philippines ($26 billion). These three other countries get remittances from many countries throughout the developed world while 98% of Mexico’s remittances come from the USA. The remaining 2% come mostly from Spain and Canada. No other country in Latin America receives more than 90% of their remittances from the USA. Spain is a bigger source of remittances than the USA for Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. This is a bit surprising given the horrible current economic situation in Spain. Many Spaniards are now migrating to Mexico in search of work.
The USA is by far the largest source of all worldwide remittances with $123 billion, followed by Saudi Arabia $28 billion and Canada $24 billion. However, on a per capita basis or percentage of GDP basis, Saudi Arabia, Canada and many other countries send significantly more in remittances than the USA.
The main reason why remittances to Mexico declined after 2006 is that the Great Recession very seriously hurt the construction industry, a main source of jobs for Mexican immigrants. Related to this, the overall loss of jobs in the USA meant that many immigrants returned to Mexico. In recent years it appears that more have returned to Mexico than have migrated to the USA. Thus the number of Mexican-born residents in the USA is declining very slightly for the first time since the Great Depression in the 1930s.
While remittances are extremely important to specific Mexican households, particularly rural households in western Mexico, remittances are not as important to the overall Mexican economy as they are to some other countries. Remittances account for about 2% of the overall Mexican GDP compared to 17% in El Salvador, 16% in Honduras and 10% in both Guatemala and Nicaragua.
The average amount of remittances sent by Mexican immigrants is rather low compared to immigrants from other countries. On average immigrants from Mexico over age 18 sent $2,115 in remittances per year, compared to $5,558 for immigrants from Guatemala, $5,231 for Honduras, $3,076 for Dominican Republic and $2,939 for El Salvador. We do not know if immigrants from these other countries had higher paying jobs than those from Mexico.