A Mexican migrant worker picking spinach.
A Mexican migrant worker picking spinach. - 
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Kai Ryssdal: When the U.S. is firing on all of its economic cylinders, American consumers buy 80 percent of everything Mexico exports. We're not buying as much of anything as we used to, so Mexico is feeling the economic pain right alongside us. One lifeline for that country, though, is remittances: money sent home by expatriates who've prospered here in the United States. Remittances have fallen sharply this year, but they still account for billions of dollars being sent back home. Franc Contreras reports from Mexico´s western state of Michoacan.

FRANC CONTRERAS: A huge fiesta is underway in Leon Cardenas. It's a town of about 500 people, so small it doesn't even appear on some maps. The main road here has finally been paved and that's the cause of this big celebration.

Federal, state and local government officials have shown up for the photo opportunity. But the real star of this ribbon-cutting ceremony is Ruben Chavez, who left Michoacan in 1987 seeking a new life in the United States. Now he runs a successful landscaping company in Chicago.

RUBEN CHAVEZ: Now I have a gardening business, and we provide maintenance and service for new construction projects.

Chavez is the president of a federation of nearly 40 migrant associations in the Midwest, Florida and California. Those U.S.-based organizations pooled together $2,000 for the road paving. Then they convinced local, state and federal government officials here in Mexico to each put up $2,000 as well. The new road has vastly improved the quality of life in the town.

Resident Juan Calderon Franco says it would have never have happened, if the people here had waited for the government to do it.

JUAN CALDERON FRANCO: It was a dirty road. So when it rained, we had a lot of mud here. It made it hard for families and children walking to school. They always had mud on their shoes. Thanks to the migrants, now things are much better here. Before, we didn´t even have sidewalks.

For more than 15 years, Mexican migrants living in the United States have been helping to pay for thousands of small-scale infrastructure projects here. And the timing couldn't be better. Mexico is experiencing its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Exports to the U.S. are falling. Hundreds of thousands of people are out of work. And rising drug violence in Michoacan is frightening away many foreign investors. But the migrants continue to invest here. They have deep personal ties with Mexican communities. And they have the dynamism to effect change, says analyst Andrew Seele.

ANDREW SEELE: You've got to figure that someone who picks up and moves hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles from their home and starts a new life is pretty entrepreneurial. So this is an entrepreneurial community. It´s a group of people who really are bringing what other generations of immigrants have brought before them, which is a desire to do something new and innovative.

The migrant dollars have kick-started projects like baseball fields, churches and greenhouses, which provide jobs here. The U.S.-based associations say they're not so much interested in profit as prestige. And lately, they´ve acquired a lot of political capital as once-reluctant Mexican politicians pay them attention.

At a private breakfast in the state capital, Morelia, a federal senator, has invited several migrant association leaders along to discuss, well, anything they like. And the governor of Michoacan recently said he hopes the migrants will continue to invest in the state, so that future generations can find a better life without having to leave their country.

In Michoacan, Mexico, I'm Franc Contreras for Marketplace.