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COLUMN ONE : New Urban Flight--to El Norte : More city dwellers are leaving Mexico for the U.S. Immigration has gone on for so long, many plan to stay permanently, lured by family ties as well as jobs.

September 22, 1993|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Sporting stereo headphones and high-top white basketball sneakers bought on his last sojourn to Los Angeles, Alejandro Rivas Perez waits to board a bus bound for Tijuana. In his wallet, he keeps a snapshot of a year-old daughter--a U.S. citizen, he boasts--whom he has never seen.

"Life isn't easy in the north, but at least one can earn a decent wage," says Rivas, 21, just before he and his father hop aboard the border-bound transport in Mexico City's cavernous northern bus terminal.

They are just two of thousands who depart daily for the northern frontier, bound ultimately for thriving Latino immigrant enclaves from Los Angeles to New York. But the backgrounds of this pair of illegal immigrants speak volumes about the evolving nature of the Mexican diaspora at a time when the Clinton Administration, responding to public outcry, is seeking ways to stem the inexorable flow.

Both are capitalinos --Mexico City natives--a singular breed derided by some as arrogant and cocky, celebrated by others for their sense of humor, industriousness and ability to endure the oppressive daily crush that is life in the world's most populous urban area. Whatever the varied personalities of its more than 20 million residents, Mexico City and other urban areas are increasingly significant emigrant "sending" zones.

And that trend, experts say, illustrates a broader phenomenon: Mexican emigration to the United States is an ever-more heterogenous affair, involving natives of big cities and hardscrabble pueblos ; unskilled farmers and well-educated professionals; men, women and children.

While pre-1980s emigrants were largely rural folk from a handful of states, the exodus that followed the collapse of the Mexican economy in the early 1980s encompasses the vast panorama of the populace, touching most regions and cities.

"There's been a general impoverishment of the population in all of the land that has left even urban dwellers with fewer and fewer options for improving their situations," said Wayne A. Cornelius, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego.

For White House strategists working to halt illegal immigration, the majority of it from Mexico, the growing diversity of the Mexican flight presents a daunting obstacle.

In fact, many scholars contend that emigration is so much a part of the Mexican-U.S. experience--and in particular of the California economy--that the flow is unlikely to abate soon. That is true, these experts say, despite the prospects for more border guards, better frontier barriers and the long-term outlook for an economic recovery in Mexico that a free trade agreement with the United States is expected to inspire.

"The people respond to a need in the United States labor market," said Jorge Bustamante, director of El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a Tijuana-based research institution.

The Mexican immigrant work force, Bustamante and others said, adapted quickly to broader work opportunities, changing from an almost all-male, rural agricultural corps to a mixed-gender and increasingly urban mainstay of California's light industry, its service sector, domestic work and other fields, skilled and unskilled alike.

Moreover, many newcomers are bent on staying, defying the stereotype of the bracero, or seasonal male Mexican laborer, picking crops for a few months and then returning home. (Even those who engage in back-and-forth travels and visits--including the people interviewed for this story--say they eventually want to stay in the United States.)

"When we ask them where they reside permanently, many inevitably say the United States," said Bustamante, whose research team has surveyed border-jumpers for years.

Jobs are not the only lure. With each new arrival, spouses and other loved ones still in Mexico are tempted to join la aventura , as the journey north is often described. Reunions with family and friends are increasingly important draws for new immigrants, researchers say, especially since the 1987-88 U.S. amnesty initiative.

That program provided lawful residence status to about 3 million foreign nationals, 70% of them from Mexico. Half of all amnesty recipients reside in California; untold numbers of relatives have joined the newly legalized, benefiting from well-established social networks.

"This whole phenomenon is becoming less and less responsive to changes in the economy and more dependent on other factors, particularly family reunification, that aren't related to the business cycle," said Cornelius, a longtime student of Mexican migration.

Even as California's economic fortunes have plummeted, severely reducing jobs, thousands of aspiring new Californians continue to disembark daily along the border, although these days at a somewhat reduced rate.

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