This story is about two Mexican citizens who came from two very different economic sides of their society. Yet, their stories converge in that they believed they could achieve a better life by moving north.
Jose was a peasant living in the state of Tamaulipas. A few years ago, a drought ruined his crop. Moreover, he had borrowed money to sustain his family and to pay for the seed he lost. As if this weren’t enough, he also suffered drug cartel-related violence and consistently faced low market prices for his products in the years prior to the drought. Indebted, with little money in his pockets, and with four children to feed, he went on to pursue an alternative, to seek life as an undocumented worker in the U.S.
The other immigrant is Vanessa. She has a degree in economics and speaks fluent English. She was eager to start working. But recent college graduates in Mexico cannot expect to earn more than $500 per month; that is, if a graduate can find a job at all. The job market remains highly competitive. She had to struggle, only to fail to get a job. Fortunately, from her perspective, she had an American tourist visa, and she headed to New York to look for a job.
After the trip from his hometown, Jose arrived at the border. He hired a coyote, an illegal crossing agent, but nonetheless he had to be wary. Many coyotes just steal money. Others kidnap people. Others, still, abandon people in the middle of the desert. Jose felt fortunate in that he found a coyote who seemed nice. In reality, Jose felt he had no alternative since this coyote was the only one who was willing to accept the little money Jose had left in exchange for transit across the border.
Vanessa got to New York, and she started looking for a job as an economist. But having no work permit and coming from an unknown university, she ended up cleaning rooms in a hotel. She also managed to get a job in a nightclub. With this, she says she is really happy. Not only does she have more than enough money but she is enjoying life in a very stylish city. She regularly attends art shows, goes to museums, views operas and listens to classical music concerts. For the time being, she doesn’t plan to go back to Mexico.
Somehow, Jose managed to cross the border and arrived in Bakersfield, California. He was fearful to ask for a job since he didn’t have a green card and he didn’t want to be deported. In addition, he didn’t, at that time, speak English. He had no money. He could not buy food. So he spent a day and a half without eating anything.
Fearing defeat, he started to cry nearby a small downtown mall. He was spotted by fellow Mexicans who gave him something to eat. They took Jose to a farmer. This fellow was one who was quick to realize the ordeal Jose just survived and immediately gave him a job. Jose now sends money frequently to his family in Mexico, his suffering has stopped, and, although he misses his sons and wife, he now has the means to feed them, thanks to the fact that he is living and working illegally in the U.S.
These stories are real but not meant to take any one side in the immigration debates. We are simply interested in seeing the lives of individuals accurately portrayed.
John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development.
Mario Mercado, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.