Mexico offers new hope for migrants

Inequality remains a huge problem, and in many Mexican states education is still a mess.

Damien Cave

Mexico, whose economic woes have pushed millions of people north, is increasingly becoming an immigrant destination. The country’s documented foreign-born population nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010, and officials say the pace is accelerating as broad changes in the global economy create new dynamics of migration.

Rising wages in China and higher transportation costs have made Mexican manufacturing highly competitive again, with some projections suggesting that it is already cheaper than China for many industries serving the US market. Europe is sputtering, pushing workers away. And while Mexico’s economy is far from trouble free, its economic growth easily outpaced the giants of the hemisphere - the United States, Canada and Brazil - in 2011 and 2012, according to International Monetary Fund data, making the country more attractive to fortune seekers worldwide.

Mexican officials said Friday that residency requests, from foreign executives to laborers, had grown by 10 percent since November, when a new law meant to streamline the process took effect. And they are coming from nearly everywhere. Guillaume Pace saw his native France wilting economically, so with his new degree in finance, he moved to Mexico City.

Pursuing dreams

Lee Hwan-hee made the same move from South Korea for an internship, while Spanish filmmakers, Japanese automotive executives and entrepreneurs from the United States and Latin America arrive practically daily - pursuing dreams, living well and frequently succeeding. “There is this energy here, this feeling that anything can happen,” said Lesley Téllez, a Californian whose 3-year-old business running culinary tours served hundreds of clients here last year. “It’s hard to find that in the U.S.”

The shift with Mexico’s northern neighbor is especially stark. Americans now make up more than three-quarters of Mexico’s roughly 1 million documented foreigners, up from around two-thirds in 2000, leading to a historic milestone: More Americans have been added to the population of Mexico over the past few years than Mexicans have been added to the population of the United States, according to government data in both nations.

Mexican migration to the United States has reached an equilibrium, with about as many Mexicans moving north from 2005 to 2010 as those returning south. The number of Americans legally living and working in Mexico grew to more than 70,000 in 2012 from 60,000 in 2009, a number that does not include many students and retirees, those on tourist visas or the roughly 350,000 American children who have arrived since 2005 with their Mexican parents.

“Mexico is changing; all the numbers point in that direction,” said Ernesto Rodríguez Chávez, the former director of migration policy at Mexico’s Interior Ministry. He added: “There’s been an opening to the world in every way - culturally, socially and economically.” The effect of that opening varies widely. Many economists, demographers and Mexican officials see the growing foreign presence as an indicator that global trends have been breaking Mexico’s way - or as President Enrique Peña Nieto often puts it, “the stars are aligning” - but there are plenty of obstacles threatening to scuttle Mexico’s moment.

Inequality remains a huge problem, and in many Mexican states education is still a mess and criminals rule. Many local companies that could be benefiting from Mexico’s rise also remain isolated from the export economy and its benefits, with credit hard to come by and little confidence that the country’s window of opportunity will stay open for long. Indeed, over the past year, as projections for growth have been trimmed by Mexico’s central bank, it has become increasingly clear to officials and experts that the country cannot expect its new competitiveness to single-handedly move the country forward.

“The fact that there is a Mexican moment does not mean by itself it’s going to change our future,” said Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal, Mexico’s economy minister. “We have to take advantage of the Mexican moment to do what is required of us.” The challenge, he said, is making sure that the growing interest in his country benefits all Mexicans, not just newcomers, investors and a privileged few.

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