Only Internal Reform in Mexico Can Stop the Exodus to America

An Essay by Richard Collins printed as a Guest Editorial in the Arizona Daily Star

Angelica, a dark-haired young woman smiled and looked straight ahead.  She was wearing a new dress and shoes and sat behind a table in the schoolhouse of a remote village in the high mountains of Chiapas, the southern-most state of Mexico.  “Mi esposo se fue al norte,” she replied to the health worker’s question of why her husband had been absent during the last several treatment rounds for a disease called river blindness.  In Chiapas, the government health service is giving out the drug Mectizan free of charge to everyone in this coffee growing region.  To prevent others from getting the disease, everyone must be treated, and the authorities were concerned about the many absentees, most of them young men.

River blindness is a disease transmitted by blood feeding black flies that develop as larvae in the small streams that trickle down the steep, volcanic mountains.  These flies exist only in Mexico and Guatemala, so the disease is not a threat to the United States.  Norte,” or north, is their word for the United States.  Her husband had left their tight-knit ejido community four years ago to make the dangerous journey, seeking a better life for Angelica and their four children.  They knew he had arrived safely because she had been receiving money orders regularly.  Still, she was concerned about raising their children alone and had moved in with her in-laws.  Here, family bonds are the bedrock of community structure --- family is the only institution they can trust.

Angelica’s situation is not unusual.  Many men from the Chiapas highlands, and from rural communities throughout Mexico, have gone.  Sometimes the whole family goes with them.  A few have vanished, never to be heard from again.  Walking through the village, the health workers pointed out houses belonging to families whose men had successfully made the journey.  Those homes had solid doors and windows, electricity and a TV dish on the roof.  At the village center, I paused to watch a soccer game taking place on a cracked slab of cement.

One of the smaller boys with thick black hair combed into a forward cowlick dominated the game.  He raced over the rough court, bouncing off the other players to take passes and score goals, after which he trotted down the field to receive “high fives” from his teammates.  This future Pele wore a sparkling new pair of Nikes with red swooshes, while the other boys chased him barefooted.

Many U.S. Citizens are rightly concerned about illegal immigration, why it happens and how it can be prevented.  A few say we who live along the border in southern Arizona are to blame for the dangers as they attempt to cross.  The truth is illegal immigration happens because people want a better life and their county has failed to give them opportunities.

Mexico’ social, political and economic system have concentrated its vast wealth and resources in the hands of a relatively few, while millions live in poverty without hope.  Given the basic human drives for self-betterment and to provide for family, no iron wall or border army will stop the exodus that has been occurring in biblical proportions.  Only internal reform in Mexico can change this, yet Mexico’s leaders include some, perhaps many, of those who enrich themselves by maintaining the status quo.

For America, the leaky border that has allowed many millions to cross has provided hidden benefits which our politicians and others have failed to fully consider.  Among these is an eager labor force highly motivated for the right reasons to do work Americans won’t do.  More importantly, it has been a safety valve of hope, without which Mexico might well have exploded in violent revolution as it did in the early 1900’s, and as occurred throughout Central America less then thirty years ago.  To be desperately poor without hope of betterment is a tragic and dangerous situation for all.


Richard Collins has worked on the ecology and control of infectious diseases in Latin America at the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the University of Arizona.  He lived in El Salvador and Guatemala from 1974-1982.  He writes from the Collins family ranch in Sonoita, Arizona, near the border with Sonora.  This report comes from a recent visit to Chiapas.  Part of this essay was printed as a Guest Opinion in the Arizona Daily Star.