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Pobre México

The millions of Mexicans who have evaded the legal immigration system work dangerous and dirty jobs for a fraction of American wages—and that's a national disgrace. But the end of cheap, vulnerable immigrant labor is near.

Imagine a world without the United States. Mexico would have it good. It could fulfill its destino manifiesto and exert influence over the Guatemalas of the world. Canada would fear its army—larger than Germany's and Japan's—and Latin American states would vie for access to its economy, larger than Italy's and South Korea's. It could parlay its size and substantial population into regional dominance. But this is not Mexico's fate. "Poor Mexico!" Porfirio Díaz, who served seven terms as president, is often credited with saying. "So far from God, and so close to the United States."

The terms of the U.S.-Mexico relationship were established early. Land-hungry gringos crossed the border as they pleased, and usurped all the land they could—often dragging slaves trafficked from the antebellum South. If anyone complained, American military muscle backed up its countrymen. Thus the entire Southwest—Texas and California and everything in between—passed from Mexico to America as spoils of war. Ever since, America has determined the terms of the relationship.

Mexico remains a defeated country. Two new books, Chad Broughton's Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities and Charles D. Thompson Jr.'s Border Odyssey: Travels Along the U.S./Mexico Divide, depict the latest stage of this long-abusive relationship, which is characterized by paycheck-plunder on both sides of the border and a long skinny strip of potter's fields for dead migrants along the border itself. These two books are starkly different, one the work of a social scientist and the other a travelogue by a documentarian. Broughton's study is ethnographic and rigorous, yet relatable to the reader, while his exhaustive research provides compelling explanations for what he shows us. Thompson shoehorns advocacy into his book, producing an awkward work uneven in tone and uncertain of its genre—not scholarly enough to sustain an argument, too wonky to spin a yarn.


Thompson, a self-declared "farmer-turned-activist" who teaches at Duke University, takes John Steinbeck as his inspiration, and some of his finest scenes do make plain the human misery involved in U.S.-Mexico relations. In his journey along the border, he is often overcome by the fate of illegal migrants. He watches a group of 75 chained men and women contritely pad into a courtroom, wearing the rumpled clothes they were arrested in, to be lectured by a judge in an unfamiliar language; they beg for a mercy the court is prohibited from granting. On the Mexican side of the border in Nogales, he watches the arrival of a bus of disoriented deportees, left to fend for themselves in a rough and unwelcoming city.

Border Odyssey: Travels Along the U.S./Mexico Divide. (Photo: University of Texas Press)

Border Odyssey: Travels Along the U.S./Mexico Divide. (Photo: University of Texas Press)

Thompson spends a lot of time at memorials, shrines, and anonymous plots for those killed by the crossing. He dedicates a full chapter to an encounter with an elderly woman at the border wall maintaining a shrine for her grandson, who had been killed by a Border Patrol officer just the week before while climbing the fence into Mexico. He was a U.S. citizen. But Thompson fails to note the 48 pounds of marijuana in his truck that prompted his flight to the border, and downplays the fact that one of the man's comrades on the Mexican side threw large rocks at the Border Patrol officer.

Thompson's day job includes running a project that takes undergraduates to the Arizona borderlands, which is perhaps why Border Odyssey has the tone of a tour guide. His inspirations may be literary, but his goal is didactic, and he uses his tales from the road to smuggle in lessons on illegal migration. He adopts the tone of a naïve tourist, stressed over logistics, self-conscious among the locals, but ever eager and enthusiastic.

The naïveté is entirely faux. Thompson has produced a dissertation and a documentary on migrant agricultural labor, and heads a Gates Foundation initiative on the border. He commands attention only when the travelogue ends and the serious policy discussion begins. He takes sides: Migrant workers are his victim-heroes. And the moral facts are on his side. The 12 million migrants who have evaded the legal immigration system work on quasi-feudal terms, receiving a fraction of American wages, working dangerous and dirty jobs such as picking vegetables in fields watered with chicken blood and feces. Those who get caught—over 400,000 annually—are wrung through a prison-like detention and deportation system that breaks up families and disrupts lives.


Broughton, the sociologist, threatens to exhaust with his meticulous approach, factual down to the last detail, but his rigorous ways—synthesizing dozens of specialized papers from a variety of fields—pay off, producing a readable account of the struggles of individual workers linked to a serious examination of the forces that displaced them. He goes where he needs to, looking for answers from villages in rural Mexico to McMansion suburbs of Las Vegas.

Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities. (Photo: Oxford University Press)

Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities. (Photo: Oxford University Press)

His subject is a tale of two cities: Galesburg, Illinois, whose former Maytag refrigerator factory is now a pile of rubble, and Reynosa, Mexico, which manufactures the appliances now. Galesburg grew in tandem with Appliance City, a gargantuan factory that operated almost continuously from its founding in 1905 as a plant beating plowshares until 2004, when it shut down, eliminating 1,600 jobs. The town's workers treated the announcement of the plant's closure—which occurred when profits were up 48 percent—as a catastrophe. Wall Street thought it a swell business move and rewarded Maytag with a seven percent bump in stock price. In Reynosa, a border town on the Rio Grande, its new workforce of non-union Mexicans, mostly displaced peasants, have fewer benefits, weaker job security, and are paid less than 10 percent of the American wage.

Broughton provides both the grand sweep of historical context and intimate glimpses into individual lives. Galesburg reached its peak population in 1960 and remained a bastion of the industrial middle class. With the plant closure, workers expecting lifetime tenure were given notice to find new jobs. Their stories are mainly of downward mobility—anxious planning and re-training followed by a scramble for work in an area hollowed out by deindustrialization.

The decline of Galesburg is only half of the story. Some may see the plant closure as a market triumph, as spoiled, slothful union workers are replaced by those who savor the chance to ditch village life for a steady paycheck. Reynosa has boomed, and is now a thrumming mill of activity with some 150 international plants collectively employing over 75,000 workers—more than twice the entire population of Galesburg. Local boosters swell with pride at the growth, presenting their work as almost philanthropic, providing destitute peasants with a livelihood for which they flock by the hundreds from the countryside.

But Broughton brings bad news. The workers left poverty on the farm to discover poverty in the factory. Wages are so low that workers live and die by overtime at repetitive, menial jobs they hate. Reynosa inspires its workers to dream, but what they dream of is escape.

Why, then, don't they go home? Broughton goes there to find out. Most hail from villages in Veracruz, a state with a per capita gross domestic product half that of the border area. Broughton discovers emptied-out villages that had, until recently, survived on small-scale agriculture. With the North American Free Trade Agreement, poor rural families were promised export markets for their corn. Instead, NAFTA hit them with a flood of cheap, taxpayer-subsidized American corn and the end of their own subsidy scheme. Family farming, the economic foundation of life in the countryside, became suddenly unviable, and financial desperation pushed campesinos by the millions into border factories.


All the two authors describe—the downsized dreams of American workers, the desiccated bodies in the border deserts—results from the end of small farming in Mexico, which released a flood of unskilled, unworldly, and desperate labor. While NAFTA may have hastened the process, it was likely an inevitable phase of Mexico's maturing economy, a stage most developed economies had worked through themselves.

Since the move from the farms was predictable, the policy neglect of this enormous and vulnerable population was all the more reprehensible—policymakers on both sides of the border knew the campesinos were coming and did nothing for them. The U.S. could have offered a legal mechanism for guest work, its businesses reaping the windfall of cheap labor. Instead, it opted for punitive border controls and a soft touch for employers of illegal immigrants. Similarly, the Mexican government could have helped prepare campesinos for the wrenching transition, smoothing it through programs to help train workers or investing in infrastructure around the receiving cities. Instead, it smoothed passage of NAFTA and other reforms by misleading campesinos into believing those changes would help them stay put, making their eventual displacement all the more upsetting and bewildering.

Some migrants—both in the U.S. and the maquiladoras serving the American market—have done well, and all hold out hope that their children will be able to grow into better careers, but the lion's share of the value created by their hard work accrues not to them but to their employers and American consumers.

But perhaps we're coming to the end of our 20-year streak of cheap gardeners and disposable field hands. In America, migration has triggered popular movements for a couple of radical solutions—mass deportation or amnesty—either of which would spell the end of cheap, vulnerable immigrant labor. Just as the end of small-scale agriculture came as a shock to the campesino, Americans may find they dislike the radical consequences of radical solutions.


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