By Sheila Croucher Original Print Publication: December, 2007
Immigrants are arriving in increasing numbers at the border, and in cities and towns throughout the heartland. Few speak the language of their adopted country, and most reside and socialize within isolated cultural enclaves. They continue to celebrate their own cultural traditions and holidays. Grocery stores are stocked with unfamiliar products from their homeland. They maintain close ties with their country of origin, and establish local organizations designed to promote its values. Many remain politically active intheir homeland, raising funds and voting,all while residing in a new land. Some of these immigrants live and work in the new country without proper documentation. Their presence is so pervasive that the local governments of the receiving state have been forced to adapt in many ways,providing additional services, linguistic and otherwise, to address the needs of the growing foreign population.
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The portrayal above seems familiar in the US, but the description presented here refers not to Mexican immigrants headed north, but American immigrants moving south to Mexican towns such as Ajijic on the shores of Jalisco’s Lake Chapala, and San Miguel de Allende in the mountains of Guanajuato. Although the exact number of US immigrants in Mexico is unknown, analysts and observers agree that migration is substantial, growing, and unlikely to be reversed in coming decades. A recent analysis of Mexican census data by the Migration Policy Institute in Washington,D.C., found that the population of US-born seniors (55 and above) living in Mexico increased 17 percent between 1990 and 2000. In San Miguel de Allende, the figure is 47.7 percent, and in the municipality of Chapala the increase was a phenomenal 581.4 percent. www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/americas_emigrants_summary.pdf.
By their own admission, many of these immigrants speak little Spanish and have minimal social interaction with locals other than employees and service providers. For some, the large colonies of English-speaking foreigners actually impede Spanish language acquisition and cultural immersion. Nevertheless, this immigrant population is quite content. They feel warmly welcomed by their Mexican hosts and are confident that their presence is beneficial to Mexico and the Mexican people. In this regard, the experience of US immigrants to Mexico stands in the starkest contrast to that of Mexicans in the US.
I began my research on Americans in Mexico in 2006 just as anti-immigrant rhetoric in the US had reached a fever pitch. President Bush signed into law a bill to construct 700 miles of fencing along the southern border with Mexico, and National Guard troops were deployed there. “The Minuteman Project” militia was already patrolling the border, and citizen groups throughout the US were protesting the presence of Mexican immigrants. Some jurisdictions declared English the official language,while others outlawed taco stands or the display of foreign flags unless flown below an American flag. Meanwhile, many American politicians and pundits built careers railing against the dangers associated with Mexican immigration.
A systematic assessment remains to be done of how Mexicans in places like Ajijic and San Miguel perceive the American in flux, but the responses I heard were varied. Some Mexicans acknowledged the generosity of the foreign community, while others expressed concerns about the rising cost of living in their hometowns due to the immigrants. One telling response came from a Mexican woman, born and raised in San Miguel, who said simply: “De ellos comemos,” or “from them we eat.”
Immigration is a vexing, complicated issue, partly because immigrants themselves— on both sides of the border — area highly diverse group. After decades of analysis, the jury is still out as to whether Mexican immigration is a net economic benefit or cost to the US. Analysis of this question with regard to US immigration in Mexico is likely to yield similarly ambiguous results. Many Americans in Mexico do speak Spanish and are immersed in the culture of the country. Some Mexicans work in the US without proper documentation (as do some Americans in Mexico), but many more do so legally. If approached constructively, the growing trend of US migration to Mexico has the potential to benefit both countries (as does the reverse flow), and reminding disgruntled Americans in the US and their elected officials that “we” are immigrants too may help temper the nativism that has polluted US public discourse in recent years.
Sheila Croucher is a professor of AmericanStudies and Political Science at Miami University in Ohio. Her book, On the Other Side of the Fence: American Immigrants in Mexico, will be published by the Universityof Texas Press.