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Mexico Woes Reflected in U.S. Border Towns : For Poor, It’s Almost Tradition to Go North

Times Staff Writer

Among the people of Tarimbaro, a muddy pueblo in western Mexico, it is almost a tradition to go north to look for work--north to the United States.

Newlyweds sometimes put off their honeymoons and head for the border right after saying their vows. Families have built their houses from the money sent back to the village, first by fathers, then by their sons and grandsons. The poor of Tarimbaro consider a trip to the Rio Grande, about 500 miles away, as much a part of their lives as corn and serapes.

And if tradition were not enough, there is a strong new reason for migrating: The value of the peso has faded sharply, and wages paid in dollars look better than ever.

A Growing Concern

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“Emigration keeps increasing,” Father Jose Flores, the village priest, said not long ago. “There is not enough land for everyone, and industry doesn’t account for much.”

The pace of workers’ leaving Mexico in search of work in the United States is a subject of growing concern in the United States. According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the flow of illegal aliens from Mexico is increasing at an alarming rate, perhaps as much as 80% over last year.

In the first seven months of fiscal 1986--from October, 1985, through the end of April--the Border Patrol apprehended 1,042,616 illegal aliens along the U.S.-Mexican border--almost as many as in all of fiscal 1985, when 1,183,455 were caught. For all of fiscal 1986, the Border Patrol projects 1.8 million apprehensions--a 50% increase. And officials say that for every illegal alien they catch, perhaps two or three make it across the border undetected.

More Patrols Promised

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The INS promises to take steps to deal with the problem--more border patrols, increased vigilance.

Mexican officials, meanwhile, worry that the traditional farm migrant is being joined by skilled urban workers who have given up trying to find work in Mexico.

Their concern is tempered, however, by the knowledge that Mexicans have long depended on jobs in the States to get them past hard times in Mexico. And Mexicans insist that these workers cause no harm to the U.S. economy. The Mexican government contends that the flow is a boon to the United States.

“The Mexican worker is taking jobs that U.S. citizens do not want,” according to a recent report to the Mexican Senate.

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A visit to a place like Tarimbaro throws some light on the Mexican government’s attitude. Citizens here consider travel to the United States a necessity. They talk about traveling across the border as someone from Oklahoma might once have talked about going to California.

Tales of Adventure

Old-timers boast of the places they have known: Los Angeles, Sacramento, Chicago, San Antonio. High school boys swap tales of adventure at the border. Only the rising level of the Rio Grande is an impediment to going north.

Even if one does not migrate, there can be an advantage to saying that one has.

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“A mother with a sick child came in and said she’s just returned from Texas and has the money to pay for medical treatment,” said Martha Gomez, a physician in a private clinic here. “I believed her. It turned out she was broke, and had never been north.”

Simple arithmetic is behind much of the urge to migrate. For example, Agustin Hernandez, 34, is an itinerant farm worker in San Jeronimo, a few miles south of Tarimbaro. He can make the equivalent of $2 a day picking crops near his home--in season and when there is work enough to go around. In South Texas, where he goes often to take a ranch job, he can make $12 a day mending fences.

Four Sons to Feed

“Here I can hardly make enough to feed my boys,” Martinez said. He has four young sons.

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Martinez was at home just now, he said, because the Rio Grande had risen too high for a safe crossing. He usually wades across at Nuevo Laredo, works in Texas for a while, and sends money home to support his mother, who cares for his family. His wife has left him.

“At least up there,” his mother, Damiana Hernandez, said, “there is some hope. Here there is nothing.”

The family lives on a hillside overlooking Lake Yuriria in the state of Guanajuato. Martinez’s father bought the land with money he earned in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. Now the family is building a cinder-block addition to its house with money Martinez earns in Texas.

‘A Dream for Many’

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The pattern of sons’ following in their fathers’ footsteps is commonplace. Tarimbaro, a farming village of 5,000 people in the state of Michoacan, is a traditional source of emigration to the United States. Mayor Adolfo Martinez recalls that his father traveled north in the days when the U.S. and Mexican governments agreed to permit contract labor to cross the border.

“It’s a dream for many,” the mayor said. “The old inculcate in the young the idea of going north. It’s a chain.”

On the benches outside City Hall, it is easy to find living examples of the tradition. Isidoro Reyes, 73, remembers his years as a vegetable picker, which took him as far north as Portland, Ore., and east to Miami. Now his son, Raul, has settled in Houston and sends money to his family in Tarimbaro.

“A dollar is worth a lot more here now,” Reyes said.

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Beating Inflation

Getting paid in dollars is one way to beat the inflation in Mexico. Prices have increased by about 30% in the first six months of the year. In the same period, the number of pesos that can be bought with a dollar has increased by about 25%.

Still, teachers at the local high school try to discourage boys from going north. “We tell them they should dedicate their efforts to helping their country,” Assistant Principal Antonia Hernandez said.

By her account, several factors work against a successful anti-migration campaign. A full third of Tarimbaro’s youths do not go to high school. Another third do not graduate. Farms are already overburdened with labor. The only local industry is a camper assembly plant with a work force of 15.

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Flores, the priest, told of a couple he married who left the next day for the border. “The people think nothing of going north,” he said.

Many Leave Families

Many of the workers who escape Tarimbaro leave their wives and children behind and later send them support money, he said. In other cases, the migrants disappear, abandoning their families.

Economic conditions in Mexico are not likely to improve enough in the near future to change this pattern. From the end of World War II until 1980, Mexico’s economic growth rate averaged 6% a year, and even then the outflow of workers was constant. Since 1980, there has been no economic growth, and according to experts on both sides of the border, there is likely to be a decline this year.

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Spending Cuts in Mexico

The stagnation is reflected in canceled industrial projects and factory closings. The government, a major employer, is reducing its spending, and more unemployment is indicated. Not long ago, the government closed a steel mill it ran in Monterrey and 8,000 men were thrown out of work. The other day Pemex, the state-owned oil company, announced that it would lay off 25,000 workers.

Fidel Velasquez, who heads the Confederation of Mexican Workers, has said that 200,000 workers are in danger of losing their jobs soon.

Layoffs, in turn, induce more Mexicans to leave their jobs and migrate. Those who are making that choice now are “more and more urban, rather than rural, (with) a higher level of education and better labor qualifications,” said a Mexican Senate report on migration.

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