Plenty of jobs, not enough pay: Economic forces push Mexican workers north

  • Caterina Ruelas, seen through the dark mesh of a screen door, rides through the dusty streets of Francisco (Pancho) Villa, Mexico. Most of the town's young men have gone north, in search of economic opportunity.

    JT Thomas
  • The fertile fields around Pancho Villa, population 1,000, nourish tomatoes and wheat, but there aren't enough workers to tend the crops.

    JT Thomas
  • Like many small towns in the United States during World War II, Pancho Villa is a town of mostly young women, old folks, and children. Outside their home, members of the Ruelas extended family laugh as patriarch Andres Ruelas looks on

    JT Thomas
  • Roscio Ruelas primps like most 16-year-old girls do, but almost all of the boys her age have already headed north from Pancho Villa

    JT Thomas

Note: this article is one of several feature stories in a special issue about the West's immigration landscape.

FRANCISCO VILLA, Sonora — Casimiro Castillo shakes his head as he walks between rows of greenhouses filled with tomato plants but devoid of workers. "Nobody wants to work," he says, as he heads back to the office. He’s short 50 people today, about a third of the number needed to tend to the tomatoes. The old man rearranges his baseball cap and utters a refrain that’s become common in many northern Mexico farming towns over the past decade: "I don’t blame them. The wages are very low."

The workers who do show up to pick tomatoes this April morning will earn 90 pesos, or about $8.50, for a full day of backbreaking work. The ones who don’t are probably 500 miles north, in Phoenix or Tucson, earning $10 an hour landscaping rich people’s yards or hanging drywall in new homes.

Francisco Villa, known as "Pancho Villa" to its 1,000 or so residents, has never been a wealthy place. But the economic fortune of this adobe village in the fertile Rio Yaqui Valley took an abrupt turn for the worse in 1994. That’s when the U.S., Mexican, and Canadian governments implemented NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

By allowing goods and capital to cross borders more freely, NAFTA was intended to help the free market boost the economies of Canada, the United States and Mexico. Labor-intensive industries would pop up in labor-rich Mexico, the theory went, and U.S. and Canadian consumers would buy Mexican goods. The Mexican economy would flourish and create jobs with higher wages, and Mexicans would have less incentive to emigrate north.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Although NAFTA created at least 2 million new jobs in Mexico and raised the average salary of Mexican workers in export-related fields, the burgeoning American economy continued to draw immigrants. Mexican factory workers earn several times what they made before NAFTA, but they can still make more money washing windows in L.A. than on the assembly line in a Tijuana maquiladora — one of the U.S.-operated factories along the border that offer steady work but little pay. And other workers have fared much worse.

Farmers such as those in Pancho Villa are among them. Prior to NAFTA, a farm manager like Castillo could sell his crops in a protected market. Mexican tariffs more than doubled the price of imported corn, for example, which meant that the country’s farmers could charge premium prices for their crops. But when the trade barriers came down, Castillo and his countrymen — most of whom farm small plots with relatively primitive technology — were thrown into direct competition with Iowa and California farmers with thousand-acre fields, giant tractors, government subsidies, and plenty of roads and rails to get their goods to market. With the exception of a handful of specialized crops, Mexican farmers have not been able to compete. Moreover, shortly after NAFTA was implemented, the open market spawned a trade deficit with the United States. That sent the peso crashing, and drove many sectors of the Mexican economy into near-ruin.

Pushed by the low wages in Mexico, and pulled by relatively high pay in the United States, millions crossed the border. Between 1991 and 2004, some 2.9 million Mexicans were admitted to the United States as legal immigrants. Meanwhile, the total number of unauthorized Mexican immigrants in the United States climbed from 2.5 million in 1995 to 6.2 million in 2005, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Caught in the collision of cross-border free trade, failed national economic policies, and a long tradition of migration to jobs in the north, Pancho Villa has been emptied of nearly all of its young men. Today, it is a community made up of women, children and the elderly.

"What else are they supposed to do?" asks Manuel Lopez Fierro, 64, sitting with a friend on plastic chairs outside a small store on one of Pancho Villa’s dusty streets. He laughs when asked about the 300 or so young men who have headed north from this village. "The majority of all Mexicans would rather go over there and work than sit here like we do," he says, grinning.

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