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Spurring economic development in homeland a frustrating goal

ZACATECAS, Mexico—Years ago they crossed the border in search of better lives. Now they want to give people back home the one thing that might have persuaded them to stay: good jobs.

With donations collected at house parties and neighborhood barbeques, well-organized migrant groups in California, Texas and the American Midwest are drawing up plans for economic development projects that they hope will reduce the pressure to leave Mexico.

"We want immigration to be an option, not a necessity," said Efrain Jimenez, vice president of the Zacatecan Federation of Southern California, which is spearheading the creation of several "productive projects" in rural Zacatecas state in north central Mexico.

The projects range from a honey bottling operation to a computer assembly facility. One of the most promising is a mescal distillery in Juchipila, where the mescal would be bottled and sold under the label Pinon Gigante. Mescal is to tequila what sparkling wine is to champagne.

There's a steep hill to climb, though: 80 percent of the economic development projects started in Mexico through migrant investment have failed, mainly for lack of technical expertise, bureaucratic hassles and flawed assumptions, Jimenez said.

"Hopefully by next year we will be looking back at five success stories," Jimenez said. "At this point everything is just talking and talking."

The Zacatecan clubs have pioneered the concept, which has now spread all over Mexico, of leveraging donations from migrants living abroad to build up infrastructure and social programs back home.

Under their "tres por uno" program, or "three for one," every dollar they send is matched with one from the Mexican federal government, one from the state and one from the municipality. Now they're kicking off the "four for one" campaign with participation from the private sector, the first big donor being First Data Corp., the parent company of Western Union.

The estimated $50 million or so a year spent countrywide by the shared-expense programs is a fraction of the $20 billion in remittances that immigrants send home. But about 95 percent of remittances are used for basic living needs, so the programs have helped build needed infrastructure where it might otherwise not have been built.

In the last seven years, the federations have helped generate $23 million worth of projects in Zacatecas, from dams and hospitals to museums and roads, Jimenez said.

But they'll be building roads to nowhere if jobs aren't created. In Zacatecas, 45 of 58 municipalities are experiencing persistent population declines, creating towns drained of able-bodied workers and economic vitality—a recipe for rampant illegal migration north.

Rodolfo Garcia Zamora, an immigration expert at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas, said the efforts by the migrant clubs flow in part from their frustration that government hasn't done more to build the economy.

"We need to be working on regional economic development projects all over the country so that we can stop the depopulation of important regions like Jalisco, Michoacan, Guanajuato and Zacatecas," Garcia Zamora said. "This has not been recognized in the political debate or by federal and state governments."

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More information is available on the Web at www.federacionzacatecana.org

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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