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Population growth key to immigration crisis

Conventional wisdom has long explained the flood of migrants with a simple formula: Mexicans and other Latin Americans come to the United States for better-paying jobs. But the calculus is more complex because of pressure caused by Mexico's population explosion.
Jose B. Flores, a recently deported Mexican migrant, was born during the 1970s Mexican baby boom, which demographers say is a key factor driving increased illegal immigration to the United States.
Jose B. Flores, a recently deported Mexican migrant, was born during the 1970s Mexican baby boom, which demographers say is a key factor driving increased illegal immigration to the United States.Manuel Roig-franzia / The Washington Post
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Beanfields and a stooped back, calloused hands and an empty wallet were all Jose B. Flores could envision for himself in Salvatierra, a dusty smudge of a place in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. Such was the lot of his father, a weary sort who collapsed each night of exhaustion and died young, and such was the lot of his father's father.

Flores escaped his certain fate 10 years ago, slipping -- at the reckless age of 15 -- across the U.S. border south of San Diego. It all seemed too easy until a traffic stop earlier this month in Wisconsin set off a chain of events that led to his deportation and landed him in a church-run help center in this windy desert city across the West Texas border from El Paso.

Flores's return to Mexico comes at a time when immigration is dominating public discourse in Washington, but it is his original flight a decade ago that helps explain how the current immigration crisis came to be. He left Mexico in the mid-1990s when the country's already troubled economy was being overwhelmed by young men who were reaching working age but had little or no hope of finding decent employment.

Conventional wisdom has long explained the flood of migrants with a simple formula: Mexicans and other Latin Americans come to the United States for better-paying jobs. But the calculus is more complex because of pressure caused by Mexico's population explosion, which turned Flores's generation into one of the most desperate for work in modern Mexican history. Mexico's failure to create enough jobs after the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement pushed countless young people to migrate to the United States, while a growing U.S. demand for labor pulled them north.

Flores, born in 1979, is a product of Mexico's 1970s baby boom, a time when Mexican President Luis Echevarría said, "Gobernar es poblar" -- to govern is to populate. Since 1970, Mexico's population has doubled. More important, the population of 15- to 34-year-olds -- the prime migrating years -- has swollen to 38 million, according to U.S. Census figures on foreign populations. That age group is projected to exceed 40 million in 2015. Mexican economists say this is almost certain to push more Mexicans across the border, further intensifying the United States' already heated immigration debates, unless Mexico's economy dramatically improves.

"You can't put a brake to it," said Jorge Santibáñez, president of El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a Tijuana-based research institute. "The central point is that migration is going to continue at the rhythm we have now, or increase."

NAFTA’s early promise
NAFTA was supposed to be more than a trade deal. One of the big selling points before it was approved -- emphasized in a White House launch featuring then-President Bill Clinton and three of his predecessors, Republicans George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter -- was that the pact could stem illegal immigration. Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari made the same pitch.

The presidents got their deal in 1993. But immigration surged anyway.

By 1999, about five years after NAFTA's implementation, 656,000 undocumented migrants were streaming into the United States -- a 66 percent increase over 1992 -- according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center. Overall, the center found, nearly 1.6 million immigrants crossed the border that year, and more than one-third of them were Mexican. In 2003, the overall flow slipped back to about 1 million -- including 417,000 undocumented -- but the figure has been climbing since, and neared 1.2 million -- with 455,00 undocumented -- in 2004, the center found.

Pew now estimates the undocumented population in the United States at a record level, between 11.5 million and 12 million. More than half, about 6.2 million, are Mexican, according to Pew. Mexicans account for even larger majorities in border states and in some large urban centers far from the border such as Chicago. But they make up only a small fraction of the migrant population in the Washington area, where Central Americans, particularly Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Hondurans, predominate.

The overall Hispanic population has also been growing, with nearly 38 million Hispanics in the United States, of whom two-thirds -- or 25.3 million -- were Mexican, according to a 2002 U.S. Census report. The increase has knitted the United States more tightly to its southern neighbors as more and more Hispanics lead dual-country existences, legally working or studying in the United States while maintaining family and business ties in their home countries.

The money generated by Latinos working in the United States seals the bond: Remittances from legal and illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States top $20 billion a year, close to double the foreign business investment in Mexico, according to Rafael Fernandez de Castro, a Mexico City international relations specialist.

Even as the number of illegal immigrants in the United States was growing, the NAFTA trade pact was off to a roaring start. It pumped up the Mexican economy in its first years and stoked commerce with maquiladoras, the assembly plants that sprang up along the U.S.-Mexico border. Foreign investors were pouring money into the country.

But while NAFTA's early promise heartened Mexico's leaders, an economic earthquake that would push migrants north was beginning to rumble.

Not a magic wand
In December 1994, the government of the new Mexican president, Ernesto Zedillo, sharply devalued the peso in hopes of stabilizing the country's wobbly currency. The opposite happened. Foreign investors fled, and Mexico slipped into a deep economic recession for two years. It took a bailout by the International Monetary Fund and the United States to stop the slide, and even with that, Mexico's recovery was slow.

As a result, Mexico's troubles pushed workers north just as the growing U.S. economy was creating new demand for labor.

The peso crisis proved a troubling distraction, diverting the attention of a government that had hoped to be capitalizing on NAFTA to stimulate widespread growth but instead was bogged down in crisis management, said Luis Rubio, director of the Center for Development Research in Mexico City. Not enough roads or ports were built, and business networks did not expand beyond border areas.

"The objective was to develop a supplier's industry in Mexico" to feed NAFTA-stimulated manufacturing, Rubio said. "What happened after the peso crisis was that everybody forgot about that."

What Mexico's leaders surely did not forget at the time was that the nation's huge flow of workers to the United States created an "escape hatch," said Fernandez, the international relations specialist. With as many as half a million Mexicans leaving for the United States each year -- 400,000 of them illegal migrants -- Mexican politicians felt little pressure to create jobs, he said.

"There's not a huge pressure to stop the flow to the U.S.," Fernandez said. "The U.S. needs it and Mexico needs it."

Mexico's big informal economy -- the legions of street vendors and other laborers -- is another disincentive for politicians to stimulate growth of better-paying jobs in the formal economy, economists say. The informal workforce accounts for 32 percent to 48 percent of Mexico's economy, Rubio estimated.

Competition from China
Already struggling, Mexico was forced to contend with competition from China at the end of the 1990s. Price advantages granted to Mexican producers by NAFTA were being phased out, and suddenly Mexico wasn't looking so cheap anymore. From 2000 to 2004, China's vast manufacturing zones -- offering even less expensive labor -- siphoned off business and shaved employment opportunities for Mexicans who might have stayed home rather than risk an illegal migration to the United States.

During the same period, 895 maquiladoras closed, with many moving to China, while others downsized, according to Global Insight, an economic consulting firm.

Guatemala also picked off business that might have gone to Mexico, and even Costa Rica -- seldom thought of as a source of very cheap labor but buoyed by a relatively high literacy rate -- scored a coup, enticing Intel to locate there instead of in Mexico.

Still, the past 13 years haven't been all bad economic news for Mexico. Spurred by NAFTA, Mexico's gross domestic product has ballooned, multiplying nearly seven-fold, from $108 billion in 1993, the year before NAFTA implementation, to $748 billion in 2005. But Mexican economists say that enviable growth rate wasn't enough to overcome the seismic impact of baby boomers flooding the job market and that employment created by NAFTA often did not pay enough to dissuade migration.

"It was not the magic wand," Rubio said.

People in impoverished rural areas found their already limited choices shrinking: Move to the big city to sell chewing gum on the street, move to a border town to work in a maquiladora or migrate to the United States. So, while the border cities grew on the strength of NAFTA-generated business, whole towns in central and southern Mexico were emptying of working-age men, a trend that had been developing for years and accelerated in the past decade.

Dream of a second chance
Flores thought he would stay in the United States forever. It was easy for him to find jobs. He worked in a Santa Barbara, Calif., home for the elderly before making his way to the Midwest. In Chippewa Falls, Wis., he said, he landed a $13-an-hour job at a chemical company, earning in one hour more than he would have made in 2 1/2 days working for minimum wage in Mexico.

Sometimes he thought about his brothers back home in Salvatierra. He hasn't seen them since he flipped open a phony ID for a border patrol agent a decade ago.

"I imagine they're in the fields," he said.

Stooped backs. Empty pockets.

Flores can't imagine rejoining them. There is nothing for him back in Salvatierra, nothing like the life he grew accustomed to in the United States. All he wants now, he said, is a second chance.

Staff researcher Robert Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.