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Mexico Redraws Faces of Migrants

Study: Report sees a trend of urban, better- educated border crossers who work in commerce jobs--often in states other than California.

July 11, 2001|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Mexican immigrants in the United States today are better educated, more urban, more likely to work in commerce than agriculture and less likely to settle in California than before, according to a survey to be released today by the National Population Council here.

The Mexican government report, a snapshot of the nation's approximately 8.5 million migrants in the U.S., shatters stereotypes and suggests that the basic character of the estimated 300,000 Mexicans who move across the border each year--legally and illegally--is changing rapidly.

The study's "Profile of Temporary Migrants" section, for example, finds that the labor flow has shifted from peasant villagers to urban dwellers. The overwhelming majority of migrants now work in U.S. commercial and service sectors rather than agriculture, tend to stay longer and are more prone to establish permanent U.S. residency, the report says.

The migrants' ultimate destinations are changing as well: California still absorbs more temporary workers than any other state--about 28%--and remains home to two-thirds of all Mexicans residing permanently in the U.S. But the report stresses that "the most recent data indicate that the state has lost relative importance, principally in favor of Texas and other destinations, above all due to the reinforcement of the U.S. Border Patrol in California."

Among the most potentially far-reaching findings is that more than half of all Mexicans in the U.S. have high school diplomas or university degrees--a red flag, the report says, that Mexico will see a significant brain drain. The report does not indicate on which side of the border they received their degrees.

Rodolfo Tuiran, the council's secretary-general, said Tuesday that the study was based on a wide range of sources, including detailed analyses of the U.S. and Mexican censuses in 2000.

The migration of highly educated Mexicans "has a high cost for the development of Mexico, and their loss weakens all of society," the report says.

Mexican demographers said the study's findings confirm anecdotal indications that migrant trends have shifted from rural and unskilled toward urban and professional. They attributed that to basic osmosis triggered by Mexican oversupply and American demand.

"Up until recently, the U.S. economy has been booming, and there is a demand for professionals," said Francisco Alba, professor of economic planning at Mexico City's Colegio de Mexico.

"On the other side, you have a Mexican economy that has been struggling and an educational system that is turning out increasing numbers of professionals. This is all part of the new, so-called globalization," he said. "But the Mexican government and society have to start paying more attention to it."

The study is critical of Mexico's role in encouraging the migration of professionals, which it calls "an almost invisible and very little-known displacement."

"The low salaries and insufficient employment opportunities in the country that are needed to harness the professional aspirations of these people, along with the enormous salary gap between Mexico and the United States, constitute some of the principal causes of the large displacement of highly qualified people," the report says.

It states that the study findings support recent efforts by President Vicente Fox to create a joint U.S.-Mexican guest-worker program that would allow freer movement between the two neighbors and to "regularize" the status of more than 3 million undocumented Mexicans in the U.S.

But it also notes several upsides to the migration trends. At the top of the list: the dollars the migrants send home. In the last decade, it states, migrants in the U.S. have sent back more than $45 billion.

The study concludes: "The great majority of Mexican emigrants have achieved their goal . . . to give them and their families a better quality of life than they could find in Mexico."

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