Mexicans working legally in the U.S. face challenges

Jeff Tyler Feb 14, 2011

Mexicans working legally in the U.S. face challenges

Jeff Tyler Feb 14, 2011


Kai Ryssdal: Customs and Border Patrol gets a slight bump in the president’s budget that came out this morning. In all about $12 billion to make sure only what and who are supposed to be in the country gets in the country. In the debate about illegal immigration, often lost in the mix are stories of foreign workers who’re here legally. More than 150,000 people come to the U.S. on what are called H-2 visas every year.

Marketplace’s Jeff Tyler went to Mexico to check out the guest worker program from the other side of the border.

Jeff Tyler: Forty-four-year old Tomasa Guerra travels a long way for work. Her home is here, in Cadereyta, Mexico, about 200 miles south of the border.

But for several months each year, she works in Texas.

Tomasa Guerra speaking in Spanish

She says she’ll go again in March, her ninth trip. All legal. She fills one of those jobs Americans say they don’t want — in this case, as a maid for a big hotel chain. The catch is these jobs are temporary, lasting from two to eleven months, tops. U.S. companies can only hire from abroad after they’ve advertised and made an effort to hire locally.

Texans might hold out for something more stable. But for Tomasa, $8.50 an hour beats what she earns cleaning rooms back home.

Guerra speaking

In Mexico, she makes $2.50 an hour. It’s her U.S. job that pays for the one-bedroom apartment in Cadereyta and college tuition for daughter Yessenia who’s studying to be an accountant.

Yessenia Guerra: I could probably earn more money working in the U.S. But I’d rather work here, because I’d have more job security. It would not be temporary. It would be permanent.

Because of the money her mom makes in the U.S., Yessenia can climb up the economic ladder to a career where she won’t have to leave Mexico.

Unskilled workers who want to leave come here, to the U.S. consulate in Monterrey, Mexico’s third largest city. Hundreds line up in the cold for official permission to work in the U.S. The visa itself costs $150. And that’s just part of the investment poor folks make to get these jobs.

A TV soap opera blares in this migrant hostel near the U.S. consulate. At $5 a night, it’s a bargain. But even pinching his pesos, Fausto Hernan spends about $700 just to get to Texas.

For the past four years, he’s mined rocks for garden decorations. If his contract runs nine months, he can save thousands of dollars. But if the contract only lasts two months, he won’t make enough to cover travel expenses.

Fausto Hernan speaking in Spanish

He says, even if he loses money, he improves his chances of being re-hired in the years ahead.

Hernan: It’s better for us to go legally. If we have papers, we can return and spend time with our families. So we prefer to go, and then come back.

Still, many Americans worry that legal workers won’t want to return to Mexico.

Alejandra Ocadiz: Our people, they don’t want to stay in the United States to live. They just want to go to work, and come back with their families.

That’s Alejandra Ocadiz. She directs the Migrants Attention Center, an innovative program funded by the state of Nuevo Leon. Her office helps workers find jobs in the U.S. If men don’t want to come back, she calls their wives, who often have the last word. If that fails, consultant Carlos Ocadiz gets tough.

Carlos Ocadiz: We let them know 15 days before their contract finish, they need to return to Mexico. If they don’t do, we are the first ones to let the U.S. consulate know, so they can be caught.

Legal workers have a financial incentive to return to Mexico. If they play by the rules, they may have more opportunities to work in the U.S. and going legally is cheaper. These days, getting smuggled across the border illegally costs up to $3,000. So, undocumented workers have to stay longer and earn more to cover expenses.

Marc Rosenblum is a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute.

Marc Rosenblum: It’s so expensive to cross illegally that people come once and stay here. And it’s easier to bring your family than it is to make return trips.

This issue of temp workers — both legal and illegal — is itself temporary. Demographic trends suggest that in 30 years, Mexico will have more jobs than people. At that point, Mexico and the U.S. will likely compete for unskilled labor.

In Monterrey, Mexico, I’m Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

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