Chicago Tribune, November 19, 1986
Jose Maria Alvarez, a citizen of Mexico and "Chema" to his friends, turned 17 this year, completed six years of formal education and joined the nearly one million young Mexicans entering the labor market in 1986. His chances of finding regular paid employment in Mexico's stagnant economy are considerably less than even.
Chema was one of 2.3 million babies born in 1969, when Mexico's population was increasing at a dizzing 3.2 percent yearly. When Chema was born, Mexico's leaders were proclaiming rapid population growth good for the country. But Former Mexican President Luis Echeverria reversed Mexico's nationalist policy in 1973. Since then Mexico's emphasis on family planning has helped bring its annual population growth down to 2.5 percent, still high by Latin American standards.
But Mexico's success in slowing population growth won't make much difference in the bleak employment outlook for Chema's generation, the 14 million Mexican youth who will seek their first jobs between now and the year 2000. They are already born. To create jobs for them all, Mexico's debt-laden economy would have to increase employment by more than 3 percent yearly. Yearly job growth of 2 percent would still leave Mexico to greet the new century with half its projected labor force of 41 million unemployed, underemployed or seeking a life outside the country.
As for Chema, lacking a steady job, he could go back to the intermittent idleness of his family farm, or stay in the city and drift into odd jobs, street vending or petty crime. But like many of his generation, Chema probably knows someone who works illegally in the U.S. who will help him find a job here.
His Uncle Ramon slipped across the border in 1985 and now repairs cars in Chicago. Unlike Chema, Ramon had a skill and a job in Mexico, but left it and migrated after four years of devaluations and inflation had reduced the dollar value of his pesos by 90 percent. Next year Ramon plans to hire a smuggler to bring his wife and child across the border to join him. So the chances are Chema will opt to join Ramon and the 300,000 Mexicans now settling illegally in the U.S. each year, or the millions more working there seasonally or as commuters.
There will be a lot more Chemas, Ramons and their dependents in the next decade as demographics further outstrips economics in Mexico. President De La Madrid's move toward more labor-intensive development may produce more jobs in the long term, but not soon. Most of the jobs created will necessarily be low- wage. With the peso's value expected to continue sliding, these new jobs will have even less holding power over workers lured by the prospect of higher rewards in the U.S.
No other set of facts can be more important to U.S. officials now planning policy toward Mexico or preparing to implement the immigration reforms enacted in October.
David E. Simcox, former head of the State Department's Office of Mexican Affairs, is the Former Chairman of the Center's Board of Directors.