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California and the West

Newcomers Flood Into Thriving Baja California

Growth: Census depicts a booming state, generally ahead of the rest of Mexico in services and living standards.

November 28, 2000|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TIJUANA — Though straining to accommodate a heavy flow of newcomers from elsewhere in Mexico, the state of Baja California outpaces much of the rest of the nation in education, housing and sanitation, according to new figures from Mexico's 2000 census.

The final census numbers depict a rapidly growing border state--with a stunning 50% jump in population since 1990--that, while poor by U.S. standards, is among the most modern and comfortable in Mexico. It ranks near the top in literacy and the share of homes with computers, for example, and near the bottom in the percentage of homes with dirt floors.

In part because of its proximity to the United States, the northern border area for decades has been wealthier and more developed than almost anywhere in Mexico except the capital.

The figures, published this month by the Mexican government's National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Information, show that that trend has largely held true for Baja California since Mexico's last full census in 1990. Baja bests the national average in all major indicators included in the report.

The state has almost no joblessness, with an unemployment rate--measured differently than in the United States--of just under 1%, fifth lowest in the country. The census statistics do not include income figures, but the area is known to enjoy relatively high pay. That is because of jobs in tourism and assembly plants, called maquiladoras, where wages are humble but nevertheless compare favorably with pay for other work in Mexico. And thousands more residents commute across the border to jobs in the United States.

"In Mexican terms, that puts these people solidly in the middle class," said Paul Ganster, an expert on the U.S.-Mexico border at San Diego State University.

The census numbers do not reflect the region's soaring crime rate or other stubborn problems, such as pollution. They do reveal, however, a population boom that has pushed the number of residents in Baja California to about 2.5 million. The increase is attributed evenly to births and a flood of job-seekers from Mexico's interior. Nearly half of Baja California residents were

born outside the state--a proportion second only to that of the southern state of Quintana Roo, home to the tourist resort of Cancun.

The result has been chaotic growth, especially in Tijuana, where planners scramble to extend water and other services to spreading shantytowns that have swelled the city's population to 1.2 million, according to the census. City officials, who believe the city's population is 1.3 million or higher, are ever looking for open tracts on which to house new arrivals.

"We're always behind," said Carlos Graizbord, director of Tijuana's municipal planning institute. "We need six years to do the basic plans to manage the growth of the city."

The difficulties in accommodating so many new families are revealed in census data showing that Baja California has lagged behind many of Mexico's other 30 states and the federal district of Mexico City in improving the rate at which it schools children. Baja California dropped from seventh to 18th place--including Mexico City--in the percentage of children ages 6 to 14 attending school.

Still, the state improved its attendance rate to 92% from 90% a decade earlier.

The state is third in literacy among the 15-and-older group, the same spot it held in 1990.

Baja officials have not succeeded as quickly as those in other states in extending sewers to unserved areas. The state is 15th in the percentage of homes hooked to public sewers, with a rate of about 83%.

Baja ranks 10th in the share of homes served by piped water; a decade ago it was 17th.

"Authorities in Mexico at the municipal level are very concerned about infrastructure, uncontrolled growth and uncontrolled migration," Ganster said.

Graizbord said his office has identified five expanses of land on the outskirts of Tijuana that eventually could accommodate as many as 2 million more residents. The city absorbs 80,000 new residents--or about the entire population of neighboring Tecate--each year.

Graizbord said planners expect growth to slow by 2010 as the hardships associated with fast expansion, such as traffic and strapped services, take their toll on new investment. But he said the magnetic tug of the border keeps the region dynamic by drawing entrepreneurs and others with an adventurous bent. "This is a more modern area of the country--meaning attitudes too," he said.

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A Statistical Snapshot

Baja California ranks high among the 31 Mexican states and the federal district of Mexico City in many socioeconomic indicators. But the effects of rapid growth show in lower rankings for school attendance and development of infrastructure.

Source: Mexican federal census, 2000

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