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From Guerrero to Nebraska: one small town in the sierras keeps U.S. agribusiness machine running.

Everyone in Chichihualco, Guerrero has heard of Schuyler, Nebraska. That's because most residents of the small Mexican town have been there.

Since the first men arrived in Schuyler more than a decade ago and sent back word of plentiful work in slaughterhouses, people from Chichihualco have been making the 2,500-mile trek from the backwaters of one of Mexico's poorest regions to a small town in the heartland of the United States.

Every month, dozens of men, women and children gather in the plaza before the church dedicated to St. Michael, the town's patron saint. They pack into two, three or even four Volkswagen buses for the hour's ride through the low sierras, along a twisting, crumbling highway to the state capital of Chilpancingo. From there they take a bus to Mexico City, then on to Piedras Negras, Coahuila After a rest and once their supplies are set, it's only a few hours through the desert mountains of southern Texas to the safe house--a motel where the groups split off either to Schuyler or Fremont in Nebraska or Liberal or Dodge City in Kansas.

"The whole town is up there," joked Raymundo Nava, owner of an ice cream store on the town plaza. Both he and his wife have worked in Nebraska, and two of his three children were born there.

In Chichihualco, job opportunities are limited. Either you work in the fields like a burro for 500 pesos a week, or you sew soccer balls for the local plant at ten pesos a ball, finishing five or six a day. But if you follow the trail blazed up north, you can work in the Excel plant in Schuyler or Dodge City or the Hormel factory in Fremont making US$500 a week.


Nava, a tall man in his early 40s, and his wife worked at the slaughterhouses through the 1990s. He earned a temporary visa, later a resident visa and finally citizenship in 2000, when he was able to regularize his wife's resident status. With the money they saved from their salaries at Excel, they opened the ice cream parlor, bought a house in Chilpancingo and are building a 1 million-peso house outside of town.

Success stories like Nava's tempt young people to make the journey. Boys as young as 14 go, set with the fake birth certificates and social security numbers that qualify them as sufficiently "legal" workers. Jesus Chavez, 22, went up for the first time when he was 18, and ended up staying four years in Schuyler working as a beef packer. He came back this spring, but in a few months he plans to head back up again.

"Here you can't make any money. Even if you have your own business, it's nothing compared to what you can make in the slaughterhouses," Chavez said. "Excel always needs people."

In fact, the entire U.S. meatpacking industry, and especially Nebraska's, needs migrants like Chavez. In the 1970s, a job on the line at meatpacking plants was a choice position, where a local resident could support a family at the same level as the average paper pusher. But declining union power and falling wages throughout the '80s made the jobs less attractive. But not to migrants. The last decade saw a turnaround in the facilities. The Excel plant now has an 80% Hispanic labor force, while Hormel is rapidly catching up, according to workers and labor groups in the state.

"It's only the oldtimers who are still white," says Alfredo Velez, a native of Chichihualco who now lives in Fremont. Velez worked at the plant during the early '90s when the changeover had just begun. Now he owns a small grocery store in Fremont's downtown.


The companies are doing well on their investment in immigrant labor. During his years at the plant, Velez saw production rise from 5,000 hogs per 10hour shift to 9,000.

"When the new guys would arrive, they were eager to prove they were hard, fast workers. The supervisors noticed and realized they could speed production," Velez said. "It's not a slaughterhouse of pigs, it's a slaughterhouse of people."

Former Atlantic Monthly correspondent Eric Schlosser writes in his book "Fast Food Nation," that the U.S. meatpacking industry has become almost entirely dependent on cheap immigrant labor.

The four largest beef companies, I!BP Inc., Cargill, ConAgra and Farmland, kill and package 80% of America's beef. In the 1970s, before wages began to fall, the same companies controlled only 20%. In large part, the growth of these multinational giants has been fueled by illegal immigrant labor, according to Schlosser.

The plant in Schuyler is owned by Cargill International. Privately owned, the company is a multinational agribusiness and financial services empire, a model of the new corporate world order. The same companies that once threatened unions with plant relocations to Mexico have now brought the Mexicans to their U.S. plants. Meatpacking is perhaps the most dangerous job in America. Nearly a third of workers suffer from injuries or illness each year, compared to the manufacturing sector average of 8%.

But no matter how hard the work, and despite the difficulties of the journey as an illegal immigrant and of life up north, the residents of Chichihualco keep going. "No one from up there wants these jobs, they all want to work in offices," said Chavez, the young man preparing for his return trip. "It's only us who are willing to work there."

The story of Chichihualco illustrates the migration story across Mexico. Lack ofjobs in rural economies-where 25% of the population resides-as well as low pay in urban centers, push an estimated 1 million Mexicans a year to set off for the United States. Many are caught at the border and deported, but tens of thousands make it through every year, where, past the gauntlet of the border, they are embraced by U.S. industries eager to hire low-wage labor.

The money the workers send back has become the nation's second-largest source of foreign income, behind only oil, topping US$10 billion in 2002. President Fox sailed into office with a new focus on migrants. Rather than remaining silent about the dirty little secret of Mexico's inability to provide jobs for its people, Fox hailed migrants as heroes who were making valuable sacrifices for both the Mexican and U.S. economies.

He set his sights on a comprehensive migration accord that would grant amnesty for the estimated 3.5 million illegal Mexican migrants living in the United States, as well as hammering out a new guest visa program that would allow more Mexicans to work legally in the north.

But after 9/11, growing hopes for an accord were crushed by the United States' urgency to tighten its borders. While Mexican officials maintained hopes of pushing through a deal, the times have changed. Former Foreign Relations Secretary Jorge Castaneda resigned earlier this year after it became clear there was no chance of reaching the comprehensive accord he had envisioned.

"We have to forget about the whole enchilada," said Dep. Tarcisio Navarrete, a secretary of the Foreign Relations Committee in the lower house of Congress. "We have to go little by little now, opening spaces here and there to make life easier for the immigrants."

It won't be getting much easier anytime soon. When Mexican congressmen met with their U.S. counterparts in June they pushed for greater acceptance of a new identity card offered to Mexicans by their consulates. The card is now being widely accepted by banks across the United States, allowing undocumented migrants to open accounts. But the state of Colorado recently banned the so-called "illegal alien ID card" from being used to obtain state services, and politicians in other states could pass similar legislation.

Following the death of 19 migrants abandoned in a semi-trailer as they made they way into Texas in May, U.S. media renewed their focus on the plight of migrants willing to do anything to get across the border. The official reaction of both the U.S. and Mexican governments has been to crack down on smugglers--alternatively known as polleros or coyotes--and to increase security along the border.


After Mexican officials met with U.S. authorities in Tucson, Ariz., in early June, Bureau of Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner announced the United States' response to these deaths would be to continue the Clinton-dubbed "prevention through deterrence" method that has guided U.S. border policy for almost two decades.

"One of the best ways to protect lives is to better secure our border," Bonner told reporters. "With Operation Desert Safeguard, we will dramatically reduce the number of people attempting to illegally enter the United States through the Sonora Desert area, and by so doing, we will be able to dramatically reduce the number of people who die attempting to cross that desert."

The U.S. government has begun to deploy 200 additional Border Patrol agents to the Tucson area, bringing the number of agents in the region to 1,900. The desert south of Tucson is known as the most deadly place to cross. There, 104 Mexicans died, mostly of exposure and dehydration, during four months last year.


Operation Desert Safeguard will join the ranks of Operation Blockade, which closed down the Mexican border with El Paso in 1993, and Operation Gatekeeper, which put up a 14-mile wall between San Diego and Tijuana in 1994. The security clampdown at these points, where the majority of Mexicans used to cross, pushed migrants into the treacherous desert stretches of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

But critics say locking down the border is the wrong way to go. Research collected by the Mexican Migration Project at the University of Pennsylvania suggests the chances the average Mexican man will try to go north are more related to domestic economic factors than the increased difficulty of the journey or heightened U.S. security.

While the annual budget of the U.S. Border Patrol has surged eightfold since the 1980s to more than US$1 billion, the chances of detaining a would-be illegal immigrant have fallen from 1 in 3 in 1986 to 1 in 4 today. More migrants are trying to cross, more are taking remote and dangerous routes, and more are getting through.

The Mexican government is now trying to imitate its northern neighbor. Every year, tens of thousands of Central Americans cross through Mexico on their way to the United States, slipping across Mexico's porous border with Guatemala.

Smuggling gangs are increasingly getting in on the action, turning the trafficking of humans into a lucrative black market. Migrants can pay US$1500 to US$5000 for passage on the underground railroad.

Lawmakers, including Navarrete, are pushing legislation that will increase the penalties for trafficking illegal immigrants through Mexico. But with more than a hundred small operations and a dozen big multinational rackets, authorities admit they have their work cut out for them. "We just don't have the resources to do the job," said Dep. Patricia Aguilar, co-author of the legislation.

Some experts claim it was a mistake on the part of Mexican negotiators not to push a labor agreement in the negotiation of Nafta.

Douglas Massey, a professor with the Mexico Migration Project, said it is impossible to create a single North American market where all modes of production are liberalized except labor. But that is exactly what the United States has done, creating what Massey calls the worst of all worlds--continued uncontrolled migration and downward spiraling wages for both immigrants and natives alike.

Most economists concur that the United States needs immigrant labor, and as the American population ages, the U.S. economy will need a continued flow of migrants to keep low-wage jobs filled.


Schuyler is a small town where grain elevators tower over the century-old brick downtown. Immigrants from Czechoslovakia settled here in the 19th century. Now it is the Mexicans, as well as a new batch of mostly indigenous Guatemalans, who are reconfiguring the region's demographics.

Twenty years ago almost 85% of Mexican migrants went mostly to three states. Sixty-five percent went to California, with 15% heading to Texas and another 5% to Illinois. Today, 50% of migrants are headed for places like Nebraska, which haven't seen a significant wave of immigration since the Homestead Act when European immigrants flooded the Midwest in the 19th century.

Nebraska's population, especially in small towns like Schuyler, would have shrunk between 1990 and 2000 had it not been for the influx of Latin American immigrants. The death of the small farm and the growth of big agribusiness have depopulated the countryside once settled by Czechs, Poles, Germans and Scots.

But as undocumented migrants, they suffer from lack of access to health care and social services. They are stuck between two worlds, incited to leave Mexico by the opportunities up north, but unable to integrate as either legal seasonal workers or as residents seeking citizenship.

There is probably no stopping the flow of Mexican migrants to the United States, just as there is no stopping the continued integration of the North American economies. Despite the walls built by U.S. border policy, new bridges between U.S. and Mexican communities are being built every day.

As long as Mexico lacks opportunities for well-paid work, the young people of towns like Chichihualco will keep heading up north, risking their lives and forsaking their homeland to build their version of the American dream.

Michael O'Boyle is a Mexico City-based freelance writer.
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Title Annotation:migrant workers
Author:O'Boyle, Michael
Publication:Business Mexico
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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