Fewer Mexican Immigrants Dream of Returning

Violence in Their Homeland Has Caused Many to Sink Deeper Roots in the U.S.
February 22, 2010 |
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Mexico's violent drug war may be pushing Mexican immigrants and their families to put down deep roots in the United States more quickly and firmly than ever.

For generations, immigrants have dreamed of going back to Mexico to enjoy the fruits of their U.S. labors. Today, fear of violence is keeping more people focused on their futures north of the border and changing longtime patterns of assimilation and migration.

We generally think of integration as an affirmative process by which immigrants are absorbed into a new country through a combination of hazing and courtship. But negative forces in their original homelands can also play a powerful role in shaping newcomers' and their children's attitudes and behavior.

It wouldn't be the first time events in Mexico have had a powerful effect on immigrants living north of the border. In the early 20th century, fears that the Mexican revolution would create chaos throughout the Southwest led to heightened discrimination against ethnic Mexicans here. During the Depression, the Mexican government, which thought it could benefit from the skills its emigrants had acquired in the U.S., assisted in efforts to kick immigrants out of this country.

Mexico's influence has been particularly strong because of its proximity. If you came here from Mexico, you knew you and your children had the relative luxury of crossing the border; you could stay in touch, literally. In news reports in the last two years, it's clear that violence is beginning to shut down what was for so many an easy transnationalism.

At the University of Texas at El Paso, where classes once took advantage of their proximity to Mexico, administrators have been forced to suspend activities in violence-wracked Ciudad Juarez. Binational scholarly exchanges that were once conducted over glasses of wine now only happen over the Internet.

Here in Southern California, the murder of El Monte educator Bobby Salcedo in Durango at Christmas is a clear example. Salcedo, a second-generation Mexican American, had been going back and forth across the border since his parents packed the family into a van for summer vacations when he was a child. After his killing -- collateral damage in the drug wars -- Hector Delgado, a City Council member in the heavily Latino town of South El Monte, urged people to boycott travel to Mexico. He told the Pasadena Star-News that he would never visit Mexico again.

According to Stanford sociologist Tomas Jimenez, author of "Replenished Ethnicity: Mexican Americans, Immigration, and Identity," moments like these reshape acculturation. "Going back to Mexico helps refortify Mexican Americans' ethnic identity," he told me. With a foot in two worlds, they keep up their Spanish and stay current with trends in the homeland. What's happening now "may speed up the severing of ties with Mexico.

"The effect will be felt mostly with first- and second-generation Mexican Americans. The third and fourth generations, he said, already live at a profound distance from their grandparents' or great-grandparents' homeland.

Not surprisingly, the undocumented are squeezed hardest by Mexico's turmoil. They are unwelcome here, yet Mexico is less and less desirable. As Jimenez puts it, the drug war only "heightens their sense of being in limbo."

For its part, the Mexican government is doing what it can not to alienate its recent emigrants, who, according to Mexico's central bank, last year sent $21.6 billion back home. Mexico has launched a media campaign to convince Mexicans on both sides of the border that the government is winning the war against the narcos. Mexican officials are watching for an updated travel advisory that the U.S. State Department is scheduled to release Monday. Presumably they fear losing a connection to their most generous emigrants almost as much as they dread the loss of tourism income.

If this brewing trend to steer clear of Mexico solidifies, it would be a game changer for scholars as well as for the transnational culture of the Southwest. "We always used to assume two things," explains Jimenez. "Migrants will always go back and forth, and that migration will always continue. Now, though, it's wait and see. "