- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2007

PURUANDIRO, Mexico — It’s hard to find a family in Mexico that doesn’t have relatives in the United States.

Even Mexican President Felipe Calderon says he has distant cousins, uncles and in-laws scattered in Chicago, Los Angeles and other U.S. cities, many of them living “a salto de mata,” a Mexican phrase that translates roughly as “on the run.”

In other words, he acknowledged that his own relatives may be violating U.S. immigration laws.

But Mr. Calderon also maintained he doesn’t know their legal status — and that’s plausible because the Calderon clan has lost touch with its migrant relatives, according to family members interviewed by the Associated Press.

And that illustrates another trend: As the immigration boom enters its third decade, many Mexicans have committed themselves to one side of the border or the other, weakening family ties — often forever.

Like the crumbling rows of low stone walls that mark abandoned family farm plots in this village where generations of Calderons once lived, the passage of time has disrupted once close-knit families.

When a Washington Times reporter asked Mr. Calderon about the legal status of his relatives in the United States during a Mexico City press conference with President Bush, Mr. Calderon avoided giving a direct answer.

“It was an insult to the American people,” said Stephen Eichler, executive director of the Minuteman Project, a citizen group that patrols the border in search of illegal aliens. He said Mr. Calderon’s response showed the U.S. can’t enforce its own laws.

Mr. Calderon’s aides said they don’t know the names of the president’s relatives in the United States. And Calderon family members in Mexico who agreed to be interviewed for this story — one in his mother’s hometown of Puruandiro, the other in his father’s town of Morelia — said they didn’t know of any relatives in the United States at all.

A third cousin on Mr. Calderon’s father’s side, Jose Calderon Zendejas, who lives in Monterey Park, Calif., provided details that match the Calderon family tree — the grandfather’s birthplace and the school the president attended. But the president’s close relatives in Mexico don’t recall Mr. Calderon Zendejas, who crossed illegally in 1985 and is now in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen.

About 1.2 million Mexicans — including many who live in the United States illegally — return to Mexico for the holidays despite increased border security. But the visitors say ties to their extended families are weakening.

“Life is up there. The job is up there. The opportunities are up there,” said Adrian Alvarado, 29, a bakery employee who has lived in Omaha, Neb., for 11 years.

He brought his sons to Puruandiro in western Michoacan state for a trip, but he said he has no plans to return to Mexico permanently. “We won’t come back until they start paying the same here as they do there,” he said.

Even as Mr. Alvarado enjoyed a stroll around Puruandiro’s main square, his grade-school sons spent their time speaking English, appearing bored and uncomfortable.

While Mexicans have long migrated to the United States, there was a notable boom in the mid-1970s as the U.S. agricultural industry increasingly recruited Mexicans. A 1986 amnesty encouraged many other migrants to bring in relatives, and the U.S. immigrant population boomed from 10 million in 1970 to more than 28 million today, according to the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates tighter immigration controls.

Mexican migration to the United States increased tenfold during this time, from less than 800,000 to nearly 8 million today.

In some Michoacan villages, “whole families are leaving, and businesses are closing down,” said Agustin Constantino Aldame, a 50-year-old migrant farmworker who has harvested crops all across the United States.

Mr. Calderon’s cousin, Jesus Madrigal Hinojosa, 60, still runs an auto-parts store in Puruandiro, but none of his 15 uncles or aunts lives there anymore. He says they are spread across Mexico — not the United States — but he added: “We don’t know a lot of the cousins.”

For Mr. Calderon’s immediate family, their lives are in Mexico and will stay that way. They still live in middle-class houses; one is a water company official, another a gynecologist. A third studies in Spain.

“Some people expected I would move to Mexico City and get some kind of post in the government — they thought maybe as the secretary of health,” mused the president’s brother, gynecologist Luis Gabriel.

“We’re not interested in that. I wait in the same lines and pay the same bills. I do the same work I did before. We don’t want Felipe to have to carry that [family] weight.”

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