In 2003 I started studying the craft industry in an indigenous region in the state of Guerrero in Mexico. I heard many stories about migrant workers living in the U.S., at first from those they left behind in Guerrero, and later from migrants themselves. What I learned made me want to learn more. In order to get a more vivid picture of those migrants I made more trips to American cities where they lived and visited their homes as well as their workplaces.
I soon learned that most of the people from the Guerrero region, including former craft vendors, were working in garden centers, donut shops, restaurants and textile factories in Houston, Los Angeles, and Sacramento. Almost all of them were undocumented workers, and it was impossible for them to go back to attend the funeral of a parent or tend to a sick relative, and then re-enter the U.S. Just imagine having to move to another country in order to make a living and then being cut off from your hometown.
In a recently published book, titled They Never Come Back, I share the stories of indigenous men and women on both sides of the U.S. and Mexico border. Their experiences and feelings are unique, but overall their stories illustrate the predicaments faced by undocumented workers and the importance of the ongoing debate around immigration policy.
Free Movement of Goods, Capital, but not People
Migrants from the Alto Balsas region of Guerrero, many of whom do not speak Spanish as their mother tongue, represent a new trend in the migration of indigenous people from southern Mexico and Central America. In the U.S. population census they are classified as Hispanic American Indians , but it is difficult to come up with exact figures. Most of these migrants do not identify with this label; it sounds too similar to the pejorative Spanish term “indios.”
Moreover, most of these indigenous migrants (indígenas in Spanish) from Mexico and Central America are undocumented and might not be counted. Yet we do have a much better picture of the size of the undocumented work force in the United States, which now numbers at least over 10 million. Ironically the number of such illegal immigrants, who make up an increasingly larger share of the work force, increased dramatically around the same time as the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Freer trade was supposed to close the gap in living standards and wages between neighbouring countries and thus reduce the need for people to head north. The gap has actually widened. The influx of people did not slow down until around two years ago, mainly as the result of an increasingly more militarized U.S. border.
Twenty years after NAFTA, we are close to having a single, integrated continental economy, one based on the free movement of goods and capital, but without a free labour market. Some people think that free trade is a good thing while others see it as a menace. The demand for ‘cheap’ or ‘reliable’ workers combined with a dysfunctional system of immigration, has resulted in millions of undocumented workers, including many Nahuas, Mixtecos and other indígenas.
“Here we are all locked in a box and cannot get out”
In talking to people from the Alto Balsas region, almost all of whom were undocumented, I was struck by their ambiguous and unstable situation. In their stories they did not dwell on the unfairness of not being paid overtime or not getting sick leave or vacation pay. But rather they focused on the feeling of being locked in a box from which they can’t get out. Many do not like the fact that they have to get around without a driver’s license. They do not like using false papers and assuming false identities, but what other choice do they have?
The reality of their children is also harsh. Until recently their foreign-born children were not eligible for student aid and all that potential went unused.
The Recent Amnesty Announced by President Obama
The recent announcement by the U.S. President to allow for the legalization of undocumented immigrants is a step in the right direction. Some of the people with whom I spoke in California around the time this decision was made are hopeful, but that decision will not apply to the millions of undocumented workers who arrived over the last five years.
As well, the border will still be practically closed for any future migrants, and I see no evidence of a program for guest workers that will satisfy the needs for large numbers of workers in the increasingly integrated North American economy.
Canada currently has a guest worker program, which was supposed to set a good example. However, that program also does not go far enough and we too have undocumented workers, not as many as our southern neighbour, but in some ways the situation of undocumented immigrants in Canada could even be more precarious.
Frans J. Schryer is Professor Emeritus at the University of Guelph and author of They Never Come Back: A Story of Undocumented Workers from Mexico. His book is an example of public anthropology, which presents findings for the general public to foment debate and influence public policy.