Mexican Emigration Is Straining Families

By John Wahala on June 12, 2017

A new study published in the journal International Migration provides some insight into the motivations of Mexican emigrants and the impact their decisions have on the families they leave behind. Sociologist Heather Fuller conducted focus groups in an outlying township of Mexico City — an urbanizing area with a 43 percent poverty rate, high unemployment, and increasing out-migration — to examine the emotional toll on parents whose children have gone to the United States.

There is an existing body of research that shows the harmful effects that separation from emigrating parents has on young children. Physical, behavioral, and educational problems have all been linked to fractured families. Other studies have detailed the difficulties that adult children living abroad have in trying to care for elderly parents back home. But according to Fuller, research is lacking on how migration affects middle-aged parents of young adult children who have emigrated. Her work attempts to fill that void.

Sadness was pervasive in the five discussion groups and was accompanied by recurring themes of longing, guilt, and worry. Nearly all of the participants' children entered the United States illegally, creating additional concerns for their well being and fewer chances for reunion. The 56 adult children in the study had lived in the United States an average of 11 years and 57 percent had never returned to Mexico. Another 28 percent had come home only once to visit.

Many of the parents were torn between accepting permanent separation from their children and hoping for their eventual return. A common sentiment among mothers in the focus groups was that it required too many sacrifices to illegally live and work in the United States. Fuller cites another study that cited "overwhelming worry and guilt" among the mothers of emigrants. Crying was common in her focus group sessions. The fathers in the focus groups expressed guilt from feelings that they could not adequately provide for their children, as well as shaming from community members who viewed them as dependent upon remittances sent home from the United States.

The parents expressed frustration that a desire to make more money drove their children to cross the border illegally. One mother said her son told her he got a good job and just needed to work awhile before returning home, but years passed and he has never returned. Despite having just a few years of formal education themselves and not having much, the parents reiterated that making money was far less important than being together. This loneliness and sense of loss did not seem mitigated by the fact that the parents in the study had more than six children on average and that most of them still lived in Mexico.

Fuller concludes that Mexican emigration appears to have a "strong negative emotional impact" on families. This is striking since her research is on middle-aged parents whose migrant children are already grown. Presumably, this time of life would be the easiest for separation. But that does not appear to be the case. As Fuller notes, "it is imperative to recognize that migration affects family members at all phases of the lifespan."

As noted, the illegality of the migration exacerbates the separation. Those who make the decision to cross the border illegally put themselves in constant risk. Most are abused and exploited by the smugglers they hire to get them into the United States. On arrival, they must break multiple laws just to live and work. While their chances of being deported were slim to none under previous administrations, they were never able to become fully vested in their country of residence or easily return home to visit. They now face increasing scrutiny under the Trump administration, which has vowed to regain control of an immigration system that long since spiraled out of control.

Contrary to the claims made by critics of enforcement, this is a positive development. Decades of willful political neglect has encouraged millions to live outside of the law, fostering dysfunction here and abroad. It is a situation that has created many victims and one that is completely unnecessary. The migrant children of the parents in Fuller's study are not refugees escaping a repressive regime or starving itinerants desperate for survival. They are simply industrious young adults who decided to break the law in search of material comforts. In doing so, they left behind families who are unhappy with their decisions and who are making ends meet in Mexico. In fact, the economic standing of their families in Mexico would be considered affluent to many in other parts of the world.

Fuller instructs policymakers to "carefully examine the implications of long-term separations on mental health and family functioning" and to enact policies "that foster family unity." But her specific recommendations would only encourage more dysfunction. She suggests providing better "access to newer technologies such as video communication" to help reduce emotional strain, even though her own research shows that fathers of migrants tend to shut down communication with their distant children as a way to cope with their sadness. More substantively, she suggests increasing the number of temporary and tourist visas for parents, creating grandparent-grandchild visa programs, and establishing "avenues for undocumented migrants to travel between sending and receiving nation." This would increase the number of fractured transnational families.

Despite her recommendations (which contradict her own research in a way that has become almost a parody in academic studies that detail the harmful effects of immigration), Fuller's work is useful in understanding the impact of Mexican emigration on Mexico. Millions of families in various stages of life have been separated. And the impact extends into all aspects of their society, making social and economic relationships less stable and more dependent on the United States.