Esther Cepeda: Debunking immigration stereotypes
CHICAGO -- Research into migration patterns to and from Mexico flies in the face of all that we think we “know”—or maybe just fear—about the relationship Mexicans have with the United States.
We tend to believe that Mexicans relocate here to take jobs and stay permanently. That those who have returned in the past few years have only done so because they were deported—and that such forceful encounters with U.S. law enforcement agencies have had the effect of creating a generation of anti-American Mexicans. And that Mexicans have little regard for our country's laws and our culture of hewing to those statutes.
We've never been able to disprove these theories, until now.
In a study initiated in mid-2013, the binational organization Mexicans and Americans Thinking Together (MATT) reveals that the picture is significantly different. And the relationship that migrating Mexicans have with the U.S. holds great opportunities for successful inter-country cooperation in our shared future.
In their findings—“The U.S. Mexico Cycle: The End of an Era”—MATT notes that as 1.4 million Mexicans returned to Mexico between 2005 and 2010 and migration from Mexico to the U.S. fell to net-zero, no one had a good explanation why this was happening.
MATT found that most immigrants from Mexico were part of a historical, circular migratory system and never intended to stay in the U.S. permanently. It was, in many cases, the tightening of the border and stepped-up policing of immigrant communities that caused the re-migration pattern to halt and for families to stay on this side of the border and put down roots.
Yet of those immigrants returning to Mexico, a full 89 percent chose to do so on their own. The top reasons for their return journeys didn't revolve around fear but a desire to rejoin their families, nostalgia for their beloved Mexico Lindo, and the inability to find jobs in the U.S.
Only at the very bottom of the list did researchers find a scant 1.7 percent of respondents who said their return was influenced by anti-immigrant rhetoric.
And when returning immigrants arrived back in Mexico, more believed they were better able to find jobs, become self-employed and make more business investments in their communities as a result of their experiences north of the border.
Once home, the 600 returning immigrants who sat for in-depth interviews reported holding a very positive view of the U.S. and a genuine respect for its system of laws and processes.
More than half said they will not return to the U.S., but 30 percent did say they planned to come back—most likely because about half of them left family behind in the U.S.
Notably, of those who said they planned to return, more than 90 percent made clear that they wish to someday return legally.
Though MATT's research was conducted as part of its “Yo Soy Mexico” (“I am Mexico”) initiative, which works to match returning immigrants with job, education and investment opportunities in Mexico, this eye-opening data must give pause to those of us primarily concerned with immigration reform efforts stateside.
Understanding that the ebbing of one of the largest migrations in history was not due to our own flagging economy but rather a reflection of the strong pull of family, culture and life “back home” in Mexico speaks to our country's need for flexible guest worker programs.
Such a change in how people can come here and then return would allow our border security measures to focus on regulating illegal immigration instead of inadvertently causing temporary workers to feel like they have to stay put here or be banished from this country forever.
“This is a big eye-opening moment,” said Aracely Garcia-Granados, executive director of MATT. “We were under the assumption that all these people want is to come and stay, to take advantage of everything and that we need to keep them out. Instead, we confirm that Mexican migration is circular and that immigrants have a great respect for our system of laws and want to do things legally.”
For me, the findings underscore how an immigration reform offering legalization, as opposed to a politically fraught expedited pathway to citizenship, could be a workable compromise. Giving workers the legal right to live and work in both countries at different times of their lives would benefit the economies of Mexico and the United States.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.