- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

SANTA ANA DEL VALLE, Mexico — Proposals for U.S. migrant-worker reforms may decide the fate of half-deserted Mexican villages like Santa Ana, where almost all the able-bodied men have gone to the United States.

As the town with the highest per-capita migration rate in Mexico — nearly half its households have at least one family member working in the United States — Santa Ana could be repopulated, or left even more empty, depending on how, or if, U.S. rules are changed.

That goes for hundreds of similar villages across Mexico. About 10 percent of the country’s population has already gone north, and an additional 20 percent say they would consider doing so if they could get visas.

More undocumented migrants, who once traveled back and forth to their hometowns, have been staying in the United States because of increased border security since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. The result is divided families, desolate towns and half-finished houses started by migrants who hoped to return soon but never came back.

But the migrant workers of Santa Ana could return, at least on weekends or for holidays, under President Bush’s proposal to allow temporary work visas.

“I want my parents to come home,” said Cynthia Gonzalez, 6, who has lived with her grandmother since her parents left to work in California four years ago. “They told me they would, that they’d come back to be with me.”

When the principal asks students at her school how many have parents or other relatives in the United States, more than half of Cynthia’s nervous, giggling first-grade classmates respond.

Mexican migrants work all over the United States, from big cities in the West to small towns in Georgia. They usually follow friends and relatives to a certain city and work in the same industry. Often, the local migrant smuggler — there is usually one in every migrant town — determines where people end up.

Mr. Bush’s proposal has drawn criticism from people opposed to encouraging migrant workers.

But there are those who want to make it even easier for migrants, proposing to give migrant workers legal residency in the United States and the right to take their families north with them.

That could wind up emptying Santa Ana and other Mexican towns almost entirely.

“It would be good for them to get legal residency up there, but Santa Ana could wind up losing a lot of its residents,” said Primo Aquino, 35, while weaving one of the town’s intricate carpets.

Mr. Aquino says he is practically the only male in his age group who hasn’t left Santa Ana, a Zapotec Indian town of 1,200 people in the brown hills east of Oaxaca, capital of the state of that name.

Village elders already have a hard time finding enough able-bodied men to fill traditional posts in Santa Ana.

“Just us old men are left here,” said Roman Bautista, 62, the deputy mayor. “We’d like our people to return, especially our children.”

The town operates on an ancient Zapotec shared-labor system, in which almost every service — administration, police, government — is filled by short-term volunteers.

The Zapotec language is also in danger from the steady encroachment of English as a second tongue after Spanish.

Teacher Eleazar Pedro Santiago says that elsewhere in mountainous Oaxaca state, he’s seen several “ghost towns” containing a few old people and farm animals.

“We’re becoming a town of only women,” said Catalina Bautista, 42, whose two sons are in the United States. “Maybe we should start exporting the females, too.”

Mr. Bush’s program would allow migrants to work at least three years in the United States, enough time, he contends, to save up money to start small businesses back in their hometowns.

But the migrant-owned bakeries or grocery stores that already dot Santa Ana have few customers.

“Everybody has the same idea — to earn money up there and start a business back here,” said Mr. Aquino, the carpet weaver. “What they don’t think about is: What are they going to sell and who are they going to sell to?”

Most residents agree things can’t go on as they are. The town’s dual existence for the past four decades — one foot here, one foot in the north — has not been good for Santa Ana.

“Many of the people came back corrupted by the U.S. lifestyle,” Mr. Aquino said. “They import all these fantasies from up north — the good life, total freedom, not having to answer to anyone.”

The habits of U.S. inner cities have already begun to take hold here. Boys greet each other with a street-gang-style handshake, drugs are a problem and graffiti has begun to appear on the town’s adobe walls.

Many say the town’s salvation doesn’t involve the United States at all.

“What we need here are more job opportunities, so people won’t have to go,” said Abelardo Gonzalez, the school principal. “Now, there’s just farm work, and that’s only when there’s rain.”

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