Tightening an Already-Tightened Belt
Reading Grapes of Wrath got me thinking about today’s migrants. Rather than Okies from the plains of the Midwest, today’s migrants are more often immigrants from Mexico and other Central and South American countries who leave their homes to come to the U.S. in search of better-paying jobs. Unlike migrants of the Great Depression era though, today’s migrants don’t haul their whole family with them in a jalopy truck. Instead, migrant workers leave their families behind in their old country and move alone, living as cheaply as possible in the U.S. so they can send as much money home as they can.
Then I saw this article in the New York Times, which discusses how the recession in the U.S. has caused a paradox in the lives of Mexican migrant workers and their families: instead of migrants sending money, called remittances, home, workers are instead being sent money from their already-ailing families: reverse remittances. Because the recession has caused massive unemployment – especially for those migrants who are undocumented and have trouble finding a job even in prosperous times – families back home are finding it necessary to support their sons and daughters abroad with whatever they can scrape together. The article even reports finding that a small bank in Chiapas, Mexico is seeing more money sent from Mexico to the U.S. than the other way around: 50,000 pesos per month are sent north, while only 30,000 pesos per month are being sent south. According to Mexican government data, about 5.9 million households (1.8 million families) receive money from relatives abroad; in fact, remittances from the U.S. comprise “roughly 19 percent of total income for urban households and 27 percent for rural ones,” making the slowing trickle of money coming in from the north a serious problem for the livelihood of a significant number of Mexicans.
Some migrants, having been out of a job in the U.S. for too long to continue surviving there, are even returning home to Mexico. The number of workers returning home is small, however, due to the fact that the crossing to the U.S. is dangerous and costs thousands of dollars (mostly used to hire coyotes, people who make a living getting folks across the border undetected). Most migrants are trying to tough it out in the U.S., hoping the economy will pick up soon so they can find new jobs and start sending money back home again. Now, as during the Great Depression, the livelihoods of migrant workers and their families are constantly in peril: trapped in a system which forces them to live from hand-to-mouth, the absence of a paycheck during an economic downturn causes serious consequences. “We’ve decided to tighten our belt until we’re all working again,” says Mr. Salcedo, the father of an unemployed migrant worker in the U.S. But there’s only so much belt-tightening that can be done: if workers like Mr. Salcedo’s son can’t find another job soon enough, there’s no safety net for them or their families back home.