OAXACA, Mexico—For 63 cents a fare, Juan Perez drives the rutted dirt roads between Oaxaca and nearby villages a dozen times a day, sometimes piling six or seven people into his taxi, other times making the run with just one passenger.
It's a hard living, so he's arranged to meet a smuggler at the Texas border who will take him to join friends who are working construction in Florida. Nothing the U.S. Congress can do—not sending the National Guard, not building a three-layer fence—will change Perez's summer plans.
"They can build wall after wall after wall, and the immigrants will keep crossing," the 28-year-old father of three said, referring to bills passed in Congress that would authorize hundreds of miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Many in Mexico agree. While U.S. politicos work on ways to stop poor Mexicans from migrating to better-paying jobs in the United States, few here think those efforts will ever be successful. The imbalance between the number of Mexicans who want to work and the number of decent-paying jobs available for them in Mexico is simply too great.
Even with a dramatic decline in the birth rate, which now nearly mirrors that of the United States, Mexico will continue to generate only a third to half of the jobs needed by people entering the work force for the foreseeable future, experts said.
"In Mexico, we don't have enough channels of social mobility," said Rodolfo Tuiran, a population and migration expert who most recently was an undersecretary in Mexico's federal Social Development Ministry. "The only secure mobility channel is migration, and that's not going to be stopped by walls or immigration reform. The only way to change that is to give Mexicans the opportunities they need to be here."
"There's plenty of work here, but it doesn't pay anything," said Luis Angel Garcia Galvan, 19, a street vendor who sells sandals in the tourist district downtown. "You can't buy a house or have the things you want on the salaries here."
President Vicente Fox told Knight Ridder in March that Americans will be begging for Mexican workers in 10 years, just as baby boomers' retirement in the United States will peak. According to Mexican statistics, the number of people aged 15 to 24—those entering the work force—will peak in 2011 at 21.5 million and then steadily decline to 15 million by 2050, reducing the number of workers who are available to go north.
But many disagree that that will mean a drop in migration.
"Other factors are much more likely to weigh on Mexican migration," said Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, New York University co-director of immigration studies.
Chief among them is Mexico's job shortage.
Depending on the analyst, estimates of the job shortfall range from about 500,000 to more than a million a year.
Some accuse the government of cooking its official population numbers to put a positive spin on a grim situation.
"The birth rate has declined, but not as much as they say it has," said Carlos Welti Chanes, a demographer at Mexico's National Autonomous University whose estimates put the birth rate at 2.3 children per family, while the government says it's closer to 2.0. "We're short more than a million jobs a year in recent years. That explains the reason a half-million people are going to the United States every year. And the other half-million are street vendors or doing other things to survive."
Mexico's economy needs to grow about 7 percent a year to create the number of jobs needed. "We expect it to be about 3.5 to 4 percent this year," said Rafael Amiel, a Latin America expert with the economic forecast group Global Insight.
For Amiel, spurring growth would mean opening the energy sector to foreign investors, something Mexico's Constitution prohibits currently; reforming the country's tax code, which has one of the lowest collection rates in the world; and changing labor laws to allow hourly wages and cleaner hiring and firing practices. All three moves would create more money for investment in public works and education, he said.
"And the most difficult is institutional reform: corruption and making institutions work," Amiel added.
But Mexico has experienced political gridlock since Fox ended the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party with his election as an opposition candidate in 2000. With the party still holding a majority in Congress, the president was unable to get many reform proposals through.
The real task is to reduce the drastic contrast between the U.S. and Mexican economies, migration expert Tuiran said.
New York University's Suarez-Orozco agreed.
"Everyone's watching the same TV shows and seeing the same things on the Internet. Everyone knows what you can make in San Jose versus what you can make in Guanajuato," he said. "The dynamic we're currently experiencing today—barring any major economic change—would suggest that incentives for Mexican immigrants to go to the United States will remain more or less intact."
Mexicans will pick a new president July 2. While all candidates have proposals for fixing the economy, most people aren't optimistic that they'll have more success than Fox did, least of all Garcia, the Oaxacan sandal salesman.
Father of a toddler, he's saving to hire a smuggler, known as a "coyote," to take him back to his job on a tomato farm near Fresno, Calif., where he made nearly four times as much money as he does selling flip-flops to tourists.
He's crossed the border three times for work since age 15. The fourth time, he didn't make it. Now he's ready to try again.
"The wall won't work," he said. "People will just look for other ways to cross. They'll just look for other coyotes, other methods, other locations.
"I like the guest worker program, but it's going to be hard to get permission. ... It will still be easier to cross without documents."
(Corcoran reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-IMMIGRATION
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