Monday, June 18, 2012

Mexican illegals plan family reunions at last

Seamstress Paulina Gutierrez, an ethnic Otomi Indian, prayed every day for years for a miracle to reunite her with her two sons, who were smuggled into the United States as children and have lived in permanent fear of deportation back to Mexico.

Now, thanks to a major immigration policy shift by U.S. President Barack Obama, she can barely contain her excitement at the prospect of once again hugging her two boys - and two grandchildren she has never met.

Without papers to get back into the U.S., Gutierrez' sons cannot visit her in Mexico. She says at 58 she is too old to creep back across the U.S. border with human smugglers, or "coyotes." So she has not seen them since returning to Mexico in 2007.

Sitting on a plastic chair in her humble provisions store on the outskirts of the heavily migrant city of Ixmiquilpan, 95 miles north of Mexico City, her eyes well with tears as she recalls making the heart-wrenching decision to leave her sons and husband behind in the United States.

She had to return to Mexico to look after her ailing parents.

So Obama's order on Friday allowing young undocumented immigrants to stay legally and work as long as they meet a series of conditions was a godsend for her.

It is also a major victory for President Felipe Calderon, who had all but given up on winning improved terms for Mexico's massive migrant population after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks relegated the issue to the back burner and shifted the U.S. focus to Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, with his National Action Party's presidential candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota trailing in polls, the measure will likely benefit front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto, who is on course to return Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party to power at a July 1 election.

"Just imagine - each day for five years I have waited by the phone for this news," beamed Gutierrez, fizzy drinks and tins of jalapeno chilies stacked on a shelf behind her, as Mariachi band music blared on a radio and dogs in the neighborhood yelped.

Her sons Oscar and Cesar meet most of Obama's conditions. They were both under 16 when they were smuggled across the Mexico-U.S. border, have lived in the United States for well over the stipulated five-year minimum, are under 30 and have no criminal record.

There is just one hitch. They both dropped out of high school six months before graduating, and so need to find a way to tick that box in order to meet all the requirements to earn a two-year permit to legally live and work in the United States.

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"Now I only hope that my sons can make it work, so they can come and visit me and bring my grandchildren," she said. "And who knows, perhaps they can find a way to get me papers to be able to return to join them."

Obama's gesture came out of the blue, and followed an aggressive deportation drive that ejected a record 396,000 people from the United States last year.

"@BarackObama's decision not to deport undocumented youths who meet requirements is a welcome one," Calderon wrote on his Twitter account. "It is just recognition of their contributions (to the United States)."

Combined with tighter border security, the U.S. economy's slow recovery from recession and drug violence along the Mexican side of the border, Obama's tougher deportation policy sent net migration flows from Mexico to "El Norte" falling to zero for the first time since the 1930s.

However, more than 65 percent of Mexicans who have returned to their homeland actually went back voluntarily, according to The Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.

Many did so because the 2008-2009 financial crisis battered the U.S. construction industry, which has for years employed huge numbers of Mexicans.

The U.S. government estimates the new migration policy could benefit up to 800,000 of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. Pew puts the potential beneficiaries at closer to 1.4 million.

By giving young illegal immigrants the chance to gain legal work, and therefore higher wages than in the informal sector, the move could help boost remittances, which are a major source of cash flowing into the Mexican economy.

Despite record deportations, Mexican migrants wired home $5.3 billion from the United States in the first quarter of 2012, an increase of 5.3 percent compared to the same period last year.

"It is a very positive thing for the migrant population," Father Luis Kendzierski said of Obama's new policy. "It keeps families together and gives people an opportunity to make something of their lives."

"It makes no sense deporting these young people who often have more links with the United States than Mexico," said Kendzierski, a Roman Catholic priest who runs the Casa de Migrante migrant shelter in Tijuana, on the border with California.

Obama had long supported measures to allow the children of illegal immigrants to study and work in the United States. His Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act stumbled in the Senate in the face of strong Republican opposition after passing the House of Representatives in 2010.

But it's all in the timing.

"Given the U.S. election is coming, it is politically motivated and that is bad," said Ana Laura Pena Garcia, tending her hardware store in the migrant village of San Juanico in Hidalgo state, near Ixmiquilpan.

"But at the end of the day it is good for illegal immigrants, and that makes me happy," she added, preparing to contact to three cousins living illegally in the United States via Facebook. "I'm going to tell them to get ready to visit."

She estimates around 40 percent of the population of San Juanico has sneaked into the United States in search of economic opportunity. Dozens of houses the migrants left behind sit empty. The residents left behind call it a "ghost town."

For some, Obama's gesture came too late.

Javier Castillo spent more than a decade hauling cement in the United States, wiring hundreds of dollars back home to his family every month. Then in April he was caught for drunken driving and deported for not having residency papers.

He now sits in his native Mexican village of Boye, also in Hidalgo state, fishing for carp from the reservoir.

The 28-year-old is accustomed to Budweiser beer and speaks the "Spanglish" adopted by many Latinos in the United States, but he has suddenly found himself back in Mexico's drought-stricken, impoverished countryside with no job.

"The conditions are really hard here," Castillo said, sitting with his wife and two small children as he counted the few fish he had caught. "At least I still have some money left from working in Greenville, but when that runs out I don't know what I will do."

With drug gangs operating along the U.S.-Mexico border, it has become increasingly difficult to go north without papers.

Many travel with human smugglers who organize trips from villages deep in Mexico to trek over the Sonora desert or swim the Rio Grande and then head in trucks as far north as New York or San Francisco.

In Boye, young men say the coyotes charge about $2,500 for the trip. The journey has become dangerous because drug cartels extort the coyotes and often kidnap migrants for ransom. Sometimes those who do not pay are murdered.

"When I first traveled to the United States 11 years ago, I thought I might get robbed but that was it. Now I am really scared to go on that road," said Castillo in Boye.

The attacks and the lawlessness of border regions have been key factors in cutting down the northward migration.

Just over half of the Mexican migrants who entered the United States in 2011 sneaked in without papers, according to U.S. government data.

Some analysts agree with Calderon that opportunities in Mexico have reduced the push factor to head to El Norte.

"On the Mexican side, the economy is doing reasonably well while the rate of labor force growth is way down," said Douglas Massey of Princeton University. "Levels of education have also risen."

However, others dispute there has been any rise in living standards for most Mexicans. While Mexico's economy grew 3.9 percent in 2011, it had shrunk 6.1 percent in 2009 and the population grows by more than a million a year.

One of Mexico's worst droughts in decades has ravaged crops in migrant villages such as Boye, where many say they rely on money sent home by those still in the United States.

Sitting in his trailer home in Fitzgerald, Georgia, Gutierrez' eldest son Oscar, 28, cannot believe his luck. He has kept a low profile for years, repairing air conditioning units, to avoid being detected and sent home and separated from his partner and two young children.

He missed one class at high school, so he is going to go back to school to earn an equivalency to qualify for Obama's program.

"It would give me an opportunity to go home to see my mom and my grandparents," he said by telephone in perfect English. "But it would just be for a visit. I don't have a life over there. My own family is here. I've spent my adult life here. This is my home."

Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix.

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