Recession Squeezes Mexican Workers In U.S. The vast majority of undocumented Mexican workers in the U.S. are staying put. They are working less and hoping that an economic recovery restores jobs. Besides, they say, the recession back home in Mexico is even worse. Immigrant economic ties are strong between New York City and the Mexican city of Puebla.
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Recession Squeezes Mexican Workers In U.S.

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Recession Squeezes Mexican Workers In U.S.

Recession Squeezes Mexican Workers In U.S.

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Since this country's financial crisis began last fall, the number of illegal immigrants coming from Mexico has dropped, but according to new research, the vast majority of undocumented Mexican workers already in the U.S. are staying put. The primary reason is because the recession in Mexico is even worse.

NPR's Deborah Amos has this report on the migrant community in New York City.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

DEBORAH AMOS: To get a sense of what happened to the Mexican community in New York City, spend some time at this office in Midtown Manhattan.

Mr. MANUEL CASTRO (Office of Immigrant Affairs for the State of Puebla): My name is Manuel Castro. I work for the Office of Immigrant Affairs for State of Puebla.

AMOS: Manuel Castro was just out of college when he took the job. At about the same time, the giant investment house Lehman Brothers collapsed. He got a firsthand education in what happens to Mexican workers in a severe American downturn.

Mr. CASTRO: First, people started to come in and started talking about their employers not being able to pay them.

AMOS: As better paying jobs dried up, workers looked for any work they could find.

Mr. CASTRO: Now, they are not getting enough hours for their week, they can't meet their expenses, paying the rent, sending money back to Mexico, and, you know, a lot of them do come and say: You know what? I just want to go back home. But they can't. They are stuck here in New York.

Ms. AMOS: Because so many come illegally from poor, rural villages, they have no birth certificates, no school records, nothing that proves they're Mexican citizens. So they can't get a passport.

A few days later, Cecilia, an out-of-work house cleaner, comes to ask for help.

Ms. CECILIA: (Speaking foreign language)

AMOS: She says she has no papers. Castro says he hears this all the time.

Mr. CASTRO: I get a lot of phone calls, people who are like: Look, how can I get deported? And I'm like, it just doesn't work that way. I just can't call someone to go pick you up.

AMOS: Would Cecilia consider deportation to get back home?

Mr. CASTRO: She says no way. She knows people that used to just go and say send me back to Mexico, but now you stay in jail, and you've got to get fingerprinted, and all that. She's, like, I don't want to go through that.

Unidentified Man: No credit, no problem, check it out. Free form. One-day sale.

AMOS: Outside this subway stop in The Bronx, signs on a dozen food carts are in Spanish: Tamales for sale, $2 each; survival jobs for undocumented Mexicans waiting for the economy to revive.

In new research published by the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, director Demetrios Papademetriou explains they were mostly concentrated in construction and the service industries.

Mr. DEMETRIOS PAPADEMETRIOU (Director, Migration Policy Institute): These were exactly the sectors that got hurt early, deepest and continue to lose jobs. That is what the hit, the unemployment hit, has been disproportionate for Mexicans regardless of legal status.

AMOS: Papademetriou says there's been an unprecedented slowdown in migration from Mexico.

Mr. PAPADEMETRIOU: Not immigration — illegal immigration, in particular from Mexico — has been flat.

AMOS: But his research shows Mexicans already in the U.S. are riding out the crisis.

Mr. PAPADEMETRIOU: They're holding tight as a rule, and the fact that the circumstances in Mexico are even worse — that makes it even more difficult for them to even consider going back.

(Soundbite of music)

AMOS: It was a record turnout at the annual Mexican independence day parade last month, a march down Madison Avenue. In the 1990s, New York was a destination for so many migrants from Puebla, Mexico, that the local community calls the city Puebla York.

This is why Mexican officials from the state of Puebla marched at the head of the parade and came here to meet with the leaders of the New York community at a restaurant near the parade site. Manuel Castro was there, too.

Do they come every year for this parade?

Mr. MANUEL CASTRO (Office of immigrant affairs, Puebla, Mexico): This is maybe the first time they've been here, so this is a very important meeting.

AMOS: Important because remittances from Mexican workers in the U.S. are a key part of Mexico's economy, around $24 billion a year. But remittances are falling for the first time on record, down by 20 percent. Leaders of the New York Mexican community, all successful businessmen, renewed a commitment to send money home.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mexican government officials pledged to match it — three to one — in a program that puts money to work in Mexico's poorest communities. But remittances are expected to fall again this year from undocumented workers.

And after the meeting, Erasmo Ponzi explains they can't send money home, and he knows because of what they buy. Ponzi is called the tortilla king of Brooklyn. He sells to restaurants across the Northeast but also to grocery stores that cater to Mexican workers.

Mr. ERASMO PONZI: Wow, it's a big change, because before, people would buy five or six packages of corn tortillas. So, now, they buy just two packages or three. So this is a big difference like before. They don't have jobs. It's bad. The situation is bad.

AMOS: This is a classroom at Tepeyac, a nonprofit organization that also supports Mexican immigrants. Here, students are hunched over thick workbooks and take turns scribbling math problems on the board at the front of the room.

Mr. JOEL MAGALLAN (Executive director, Tepeyac): Preparation to go to the college. And that's part of the SAT preparation.

AMOS: Executive Director Joel Magallan teaches this class three nights a week. And when I ask him why so many Mexicans stayed in the U.S., he says many American employers cut their hours but encouraged them to stay.

Mr. MAGALLAN: What I found from different employers — I was talking with some of them and they said, I don't want to lose my workers. I'm pushing them to stay here and get like 20 hours or 30 hours, as much as I can.

AMOS: New York depended on Mexican workers for more than a decade. Research from the Pew Hispanic Center shows 95 percent of Mexican men here illegally were in the work force.

Demetrios Papademetriou, at the Migration Policy Center, says U.S. employers will depend on them again.

Mr. PAPADEMETRIOU: The most likely workers to be called back first: Mexicans, those who are here illegally.

AMOS: Americans have been warned of a jobless recovery. But when the recession fades, says Papademetriou, employers are likely to bring back those who cost the least.

Mr. PAPADEMETRIOU: And this is going to be very contentious when it happens, very contentious. They're going to try to bring in some more workers who, in their mind, are both hard workers but also contingent workers. In other words, they can let them go if things don't work out just in case a real recovery is more of a mirage.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Deborah Amos's report comes courtesy of America Abroad, a monthly public radio international affairs program. For more economic news, subscribe to the Planet Money podcast at

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