Migrants Beat New Paths ; for Latin Americans, U.S. No Longer Beckons as Best Way to a New Life

By Cave, Damien | International Herald Tribune, January 7, 2012 | Go to article overview

Migrants Beat New Paths ; for Latin Americans, U.S. No Longer Beckons as Best Way to a New Life


Cave, Damien, International Herald Tribune


In Mexico and Latin America, old migratory patterns are changing as migrants move to a wider range of cities and countries, creating regional challenges and opportunities.

When the old-timers here look around their town, all they see are new arrivals: young Mexican men working construction and driving down wages; the children of laborers flooding crowded schools; even new businesses -- stores, restaurants and strip clubs -- springing up on roads that used to be dark and quiet.

The shock might seem familiar enough in countless U.S. towns wrestling with immigration, but this is a precolonial Mexican village outside Oaxaca City, filling up with fellow Mexicans. Still, grimaces about the influx are as common as smiles.

"Before all these people came, everything was tranquil," said Marcelino Juarez, 61, an artisan at the local ceramics market. "They bring complications. They don't bring benefits."

Throughout Mexico and much of Latin America, the old migratory patterns are changing. The mobile and restless are now casting themselves across a wider range of cities and countries in the region, pitting old residents against new, increasing pressure to create jobs and prompting nations to rewrite their immigration laws, sometimes to encourage the trend.

The United States is simply not the magnet it once was. Arrests at the country's southwest border in 2011 fell to their lowest level since 1972, confirming that illegal immigration, especially from Mexico, had reached what experts now describe as either a significant pause or the end of an era.

But this is not a shift in volume as much as direction. Nearly two million more Mexicans lived away from their hometowns in 2010 than was the case a decade earlier, according to the Mexican census. Experts say departures have also held steady or increased over the past few years in Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru and other Latin American countries that have traditionally been hubs of emigration.

The migrants are just not always going where they used to.

Mexicans, for example, are increasingly avoiding the United States and the border region, as well as their own capital, and are moving toward smaller, safer cities like Merida, Oaxaca City and Queretaro. Experts say more Guatemalans are also settling in Mexico after years of passing through on the journey north.

To the south, the pull of Chile, Argentina and Brazil is also strengthening. The International Organization for Migration reports that the Bolivian population in Argentina has increased 48 percent since 2001 (to 345,000), and that the country's Paraguayan and Peruvian populations grew even faster.

All of this movement is reshaping the region, making it less like a compass pointing north and more like a hub with many spokes. From the papayas grown by Bolivian farmers in Argentina to the recent discovery of exploited illegal workers in Chile and conflicts over local government in southern Mexico, this intraregional migration in Latin America has become both a challenge and a promising surprise for a part of the world that has generally framed the issue in terms of how many people leave for the United States.

"It's like a river changing course," said Gabino Cue Monteagudo, the governor of Oaxaca. "It's the process of development -- it's inevitable."

For the United States, the collective shift means fewer migrants crossing the border illegally and possibly more debate over whether the expanded budgets for immigration enforcement still make sense.

But the greatest impacts are being felt in fast-growing towns like Santa Maria Atzompa, where thousands of mostly poor, rural families have chosen to seek their fortunes. In the case of this town and the surrounding area, the growth has been "fast, barbaric and anarchic," said Jorge Hernandez-Diaz, a sociologist at Benito Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca.

A generation ago, he said, the road from Oaxaca City to the main plaza of Atzompa passed by fields and farmers, little more. …

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