Loyal Ties Questioned Amid Mexico Drug War
LYNN NEARY, host:
And now we look at the weakening of family ties between Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. and their relatives back home. The escalating violence of drug cartels in Mexico is forcing those living in the U.S. to consider putting down roots permanently. Another factor is the economic recession in the United States.
Here to discuss this is Tomas Jimenez. He is an assistant professor of Sociology at Stanford University and a fellow at the New America Foundation. Welcome to the program, professor.
Professor TOMAS JIMENEZ (Sociology, Stanford University): Thanks for having me, Lynn.
NEARY: How is the violence that were hearing about along the border now affecting traditional migration patterns and affecting the way Mexican immigrants in this country relate back to their families?
Prof. JIMENEZ: Its tough to say with any certainty, but I think along the border its certainly changing things. There are communities along the border that for most of the history of Mexican-U.S. relations have been pretty porous. People go back and forth, they work and live on both sides of the border, they go to school on the other side of the border. And the violence in Mexico, as particularly in border towns, has changed that a little bit. People are afraid now to spend too much time in places like Juarez or Tijuana where the violence has gotten pretty bad. And I think that particularly for unauthorized immigrants, there is a sense obviously that they feel like theyre living in limbo in the United States because they lack the legal status to fully participate, but things have gotten more dangerous in Mexico.
And so, they may feel going back home may be less of a viable option. So, I think there may be a sense that theyre living in a limbo thats even more heightened than before.
NEARY: And how does this affect legal immigrants who have been holding down jobs, sending money back to family in Mexico, the fact that not only is it harder to cross the border now, but the economy is bad so jobs are scarcer. How is all that playing into this?
Prof. JIMENEZ: Well, all the data suggests that there is less money going back to Mexico and thats obviously because of the economy. Somewhere in the range of $21 billion went back in 2009 and thats down from around $26 billion at its height just a couple of years ago. So theres less money going back. Its not clear that thats being affected by the drug violence, more so by the economic situation in the United States. But what may be happening, and again, we have right now really just anecdotal evidence on this, but what may be happening is that particularly legal Mexican migrants may be orienting their lives even more so in the United States than they did in the past.
Migrants have historically, but especially in the last 30 years or so, maintained lives that, in some ways, cross national boundaries. They send money back, as you mentioned. They participate politically in some cases. Some people are raising families on both sides of the border. That is if a husband or wife is living on this side of the border, they may be doling out punishment to their kids on the other side of the border for coming home too late and that may be slowing down some.
NEARY: Is that necessarily a bad thing? I mean, does that mean that Mexicans who have emigrated to this country are more likely to assimilate into the culture of this country, as other immigrants have done in the past?
Prof. JIMENEZ: You know, I think there is a popular belief that as Mexican migrants stay engaged with life back home that that somehow takes away from their ability to be engaged in the United States. And all of the evidence that I have seen, and Im thinking in particular of evidence gathered by Wayne Cornelius(ph) at U.C. San Diego shows that, in fact, when migrants are staying politically involved in Mexico - and usually political involvement involves kind of local hometown politics, it actually heightens their political involvement in the United States as well.
NEARY: How does this affect the children of immigrants in terms of their staying connected to their families in Mexico and the culture of Mexico?
Prof. JIMENEZ: The children of immigrants live quite different lives. They live in immigrant households, obviously, but they have one foot in the household of their parents and one foot in an American society that theyve grown up. They have one frame of reference, their parents have a different frame of reference, but children of Mexican immigrants and all immigrants, for that matter, are much less connected to life in the homeland than their parents are. And so theyre orienting their lives very much so in the United States.
Theyre much less likely to send money back, much less likely to visit frequently, much less likely to be politically involved. I think that the one issue that is of concern to me and should be a concern to anyone who is worried about the future of this country relates to what its like for the children of unauthorized immigrants. We have about 4.5 million children growing up in a household with at least one unauthorized parent. And the legal status of the parents can have very negative impacts on the ability of the U.S.-born second generation to assimilate.
Now, all the evidence suggests that growing up in a household with unauthorized parents has a negative impact on the earnings of the children of these immigrants, even into adulthood, on their propensity to speak English, on their educational attainment. And so, I think that we would do well to think about legal status not so much as an issue related to immigration, but as an issue related to assimilation. And if we look at it that way, I think the importance of a legalization program becomes even clearer.
NEARY: Well, if were beginning to see a sort of change in the migration patterns from Mexico to the United States, where do you think this is going in the future? How much is it going to change?
Prof. JIMENEZ: We used to assume two things about Mexican immigration. The first is that it would always happen and it has been happening for nearly a century. And the second thing is that migrants would tend to go back and forth or at least live lives that were significantly shaped by life in the United States and life in Mexico. And in recent times, and Im talking here about the last year or two, those two assumptions have been called into question.
Its way to early to say whether Mexican immigration is on a permanent downswing, but we have seen a decline in the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States, and again, the majority of the unauthorized immigrants come from Mexico by about a million since its height. I think and the evidence suggests that that is almost exclusively due to the downturn in the economy. So, if the economy picks up again, and we all think it will, I think were likely to see that pattern of migration start to pick up again.
NEARY: But what if you concurrently continue to have this violence along the border, the drug violence? Wont that affect the number of people coming into this country across the border?
Prof. JIMENEZ: Its really tough to say. As the drug violence picked up, we concurrently had this massive downturn in the U.S. economy. So, its hard to say which of these two things may play a larger role. You know, it may be the case that migrants are more reluctant to cross through places where the drug violence is particularly heightened. But migrants have shown an ability to take big chances to cross into the United States. And so, migrants are people who are not risk averse and so the drug violence may or may not slow things down. My best guess, looking at history, is that it wouldnt have a major impact.
NEARY: Tomas Jimenez is an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University and the author of Replenished Ethnicity: Mexican Americans, Immigration, and Identity. He was kind enough to join us from the studios at Stanford. Thanks so much for being with us.
Prof. JIMENEZ: Good to be here.
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