Two houses up the dirt road, the only sound coming from the dim shadows of Andrés Ruelas’s house is the scratch scratch scratch as he scrapes the dirt floor of the kitchen. Ruelas’ wife, Rosa Maria, age 50, left this morning at dawn to pick tomatoes, but Andrés decided it wasn’t worth it. He chose instead to put his energy into working on his home, scraping the kitchen floor to an even surface before sealing it with concrete.

Andrés is a contractor, but work is often slim. So he spends his time looking for the gold rumored to have been hidden in the mountains to the east by Yaqui Indian bandits 100 years ago. He used to hunt deer in those hills for food, but a few years ago he sold his rifle, when the electric bills piled up.

When Ruelas finishes his current project, he says, he’ll replace the outhouse and outdoor shower with indoor plumbing. "And a laundry room. We want to add that to the back of the house." All this home improvement, Ruelas says proudly, is "what my boy has been able to do for us." The Ruelas’ son, Gabriel, left for the United States three years ago at age 18, walking for five days before he reached Phoenix. Now, he earns enough money laying concrete foundations to send $100 home every week.

According to the Inter-American Development Bank, more than 60 percent of the millions of Latin American-born people in the United States send money home on a regular basis. For Mexico, that amounts to nearly $20 billion per year, or 3 percent of its gross domestic product. Although such remittances generally make up only about 10 percent of the sender’s income, they can account for 50 to 80 percent of the incomes of those receiving the payments.

The Mexican government embraces this practice. In 2005, Mexico’s "3-for-1" program gave $60 million to communities to match $20 million invested by immigrants. Morelia, in the southern state of Michoacán, is using the money to build a cathedral; Cumpas, Sonora, is building a community arts center. The government also issues identification cards to immigrants, making it easier for them to open bank accounts in the United States. Expatriates contribute so much that President Vicente Fox calls them heroes.

Gabriel didn’t feel very heroic when he first reached the United States, however. "Gabriel called us once he arrived, saying ‘Mamá, this is so hard. I want to go home,’ " says his mother. "He was scared, he didn’t know anybody. But I told him, ‘Stay and finish what you said you wanted to do.’ " Her response was tough, she knows, but realistic: "He went through too much to get there."


A giant whack is followed by singing as a group of small children, gathered in a circle, take turns swinging at a yellow Esponga Bob Squarepants piñata. Over an open fire in a brick pit, a pot of tamales cooks; Rosa Maria and Andrés are throwing a small birthday party tonight for their grandson, who just turned 2.

Angelica Machado, the Ruelas’ oldest daughter, sips a Tecate beer, watching the kids cheer as Esponga Bob gets another whack, his right arm flying off. Now in her 30s, with long black hair, Machado met her husband, Ezequiel, when she was 17, working alongside him picking tomatoes for $5 a day.

His quick wit and quiet pride attracted her, and they married soon after and began to plan their future. They left Pancho Villa six years ago for the sprawling border city of Tijuana. Three years later, they returned home, broke; they had taken low-paying jobs on an assembly line in a maquiladora. With two babies already and a third on the way, Ezequiel decided to follow the other men in Pancho Villa across the border, traveling illegally to Phoenix to take a job as a roofer. That was two years ago.

"I miss him," Angelica says, her eyes shining in the harsh light of the single bulb illuminating the backyard. "He didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to leave his family."

She stops for a second, gathering herself, then speaks again. He came home in December for his first visit since leaving. It’s easy to cross the border from the United States back into Mexico, but the return is risky: Border Patrol agents, fences, a dangerous desert crossing that costs upwards of $1,500 for a smuggler.

A guest-worker plan would help her family, she says: "It would make it easier for him to come home more often. He’s missing his children growing up." Still, he sends money, $300 to $400 a week. "We were able to buy a house and fix it up," she says. The next step is new furniture, she says, and maybe an extra bedroom.

In March, Angelica heard of the United States Senate’s proposed immigration legislation. If it passes, it will create a guest-worker program and a path to legalization for many of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. Ezequiel heard about it too and called her.

If it happens, will you come back? she asked him.

I don’t know, he replied. I hope so.


This story is a sidebar to the feature:

The Immigrant's Trail

This special issue of High Country News takes an on-the-ground look at the human landscape of illegal immigration in the West