The Story of a People on the Move

1b - South Mpls man Credit Daniel Rojas

Photo by Daniel Rojas

The Hope and Tragedy of Latino Immigration

by Todd Svanoe

On a spring day on Lake Street in South Minneapolis, bulldozers roar, clearing away "Crack Alley" and, along with it, its history of drug lords, prostitution, and porn shops.

In its place a wealthy Palestinian business developer is building a shopping mall, and eager Latino entrepreneurs are flooding in, lining up to lease every storefront.

In 10 short years, a three-mile stretch of this business district has become home to 255 Latino businesses, according to the local Latino Economic Development Center. "Blink and you'll see 20 more Latino businesses here," the developer says lustily, as tenants unfurl awnings, paint slogans on windows, and unload merchandise.

Meanwhile, 2,000 miles away in San Jose, Guanajuato, Mexico, two cargo trucks are being loaded with 20 men, women, and children, all headed north in search of a better life. The group gives the most comfortable seats to elders who will need their energy at the border to swim, drop, or run, if necessary, to evade US agents.

Contracts are inked: $2,500 a head, double the price commanded by smuggling "coyotes" before the US renewed its efforts to tighten the border. Most of the money is extended as loans by sharks who must be reimbursed through work the immigrants hope to find in the US.

Days later, the pilgrims arrive at the border, dusty and tired, but full of adrenaline, with Texas in plain view just across the Rio Grande. After waiting at a lookout, a few at a time are escorted to densely bushed areas where they stay until dark, awaiting the signal.

Juan, who has made this crossing once before, smiles. "It's like a game of cat and mouse. If I'm caught and sent back, I don't care. Mexico is my home."

US border enforcement is hard to take seriously. Of the 5.2 million border crossers arrested between 2000 and 2005, only 2 percent were ever prosecuted. Thus, Juan and his group are undaunted. Young and old swim the 30 yards to US soil, are ushered around a border patrolman, and then begin the hardest part of the trip—walking without food for four days. Heatstroke, dehydration, and hypothermia on this inland journey are the leading causes of death for more than 1,000 Mexicans per year on both sides of the border, a number increasing as tightened security leads to more daring evasion efforts.(1)

The smugglers offer no employment guarantees for the travelers, just rave stories of success and advertisements of the types of jobs available in each state. States like Minnesota, with a thriving economy and progressive social service tradition, are particularly attractive destinations.

Ten years ago, Minnesota was dubbed a "new Ellis Island" by one think tank, rivaled only by Georgia, Kentucky, and North Carolina for the steepest recent influx of immigrants relative to existing populations.(2)

4b Mex Indep Day Celeb - Credit Todd Svanoe

Each September, 25,000 Latinos flood Lake Street to celebrate Mexican Independence Day (photo by Todd Svanoe).

And that was before 95 percent of the Lake Street entrepreneurs had arrived. Each September, 25,000 Latinos flood Lake Street to celebrate Mexican Independence Day. Seventy percent of them are estimated to be here illegally. (3) Minneapolis community leaders have learned much about the drive, capabilities, and struggles of their new neighbors, a learning curve that would benefit community leaders across the country, whether pundit, politician, or policymaker.

Fleeing a land of plenty?

Today's manic migration from the Mexican border to the city of Minneapolis reflects a demographic phenomenon confronting nearly every major US city. The nation swells with the ranks of an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants, 75 percent from Mexico and Central America. (4)

Why do they come?

If measured by natural resources, such as oil and precious metals, Mexico in 2008 is better off even than the US. (5) Its modern economy is 12th strongest in the world and the healthiest it's ever been if measured by its "purchasing power," with a 3 percent gross domestic product "growth rate" and its inflation rate holding steady. (6)

This is not to overlook Mexico's severe income disparities and systemic troubles, but since the 1992 North American Free Trade agreement, the country's overall stability and welfare have steadily improved, its fortunes generally running parallel to those of US industry, as 70 percent of its exports go directly north. (7)

Juan and his fellow travelers did not leave home because they were unemployed. Their state leads its nation in auto-part and shoe production, and its silver mining is second in the world. In fact, Mexico has enjoyed less than 4 percent unemployment for most of the past decade. (8)

Yet its per capita income is 51st in the world at only $7,216, compared to the US, which is seventh at $45,660. (9) Juan had the option of staying and working in construction with his father. But "Why should I?" he asks. "I would make $200 a week at home. In the US, construction pays up to $700."

Much could be said about the extreme economic gap between the Mexicans who still live in dire poverty and the developing middle class and spiking upper class. Corporate greed and political corruption are still rampant, and most industries are monopolized by leaders who receive "absurd" tax advantages, according to Mexican foreign policy expert George Grayson. (10)

Social programs have until recently largely ignored half of Mexico, including "rag pickers from fetid slums," says Grayson. Agricultural workers in southern states like Chiapas or Oaxaca, for example, earn literally $1 a day, dwarfed by the $8 an hour paid in rural Minnesota. (11) However, it's not this "extreme poverty" that is driving most migrants north. It's "relative poverty"—personal dignity and self-respect.

Undocumented Latinos who emigrate are three times more literate than the Mexican national average. (12) In fact, more than 55 percent of foreign-born Latinos in America today are high-school or college educated. (13) These are individuals with drive and ambition who are simply unwilling to accept their home country's depressed standard of living.

A World Bank report helpfully illuminates the dimensions of poverty in Mexico. After the Mexican economy had stabilized in 2004, 18 percent of urban and rural Mexicans still struggled with "food poverty," 25 percent experienced "capacities poverty" (lack of opportunity to advance), and 48 percent faced "assets poverty" (lack of land or capital to invest). (14)

First-generation single adults like Juan, whose main goal is rapid material betterment, receive predictably high dividends from American employment. If you ask young men like Juan why they are in Minneapolis, the first thing they say is "to send money home."

"I sent $7,000 last year," said Juan, who since 2001 has picked sweet potatoes, laid concrete, landscaped, and sorted mail, never lacking work for more than a month.

In 2005 unauthorized manual laborers like Juan held 36 percent of all insulation jobs in the nation, 29 percent of all roofing and drywall work, 27 percent of all food processing, and 24 percent of all farming. (15) Today more than $23 billion annually flows from the US into Mexico, making remittances the country's second greatest source of income after oil. (16) The social uplift from these donations is widespread, as an estimated one in four Mexicans receives money for food, housing, or education from America. (17)

Euphoric tales told by Minneapolis immigrants are reminiscent of gold rush days in America. For example, migrant worker cohorts from Axochiapan, Morelos, wire an after-expenses $4 to $7 million each month to that hometown alone. (18)

The governor of Morelos, the second smallest state in Mexico and home to an estimated 45 percent of the Mexican immigrants in Minneapolis, has visited Minneapolis and even set up an embassy-like center to assist immigrants in transition, according to Rodolfo Gutierrez, director of Hacer, a Latino research institute in Minneapolis.

"Towns like this have become literally deserted, like ghost towns," said Gutierrez. "Nearly the entire male population has relocated. With money sent home you see houses springing up and new roads being built to provide government services."

Minneapolis Star Tribune reporters visiting Axochiapan found that while in previous years "sewage and refuse piled up in dry creek beds" in the town of 30,000, money from Minneapolis has paid for sewer pipes and a new sewage treatment plant. A private hospital has been built for $3 million. The next  anticipated purchase: the town's first fire truck. (19)

This sister city relationship is hardly an isolated example, according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Mark Bixler, who profiled the 5,000 residents of Villa Juarez, San Luis Potosi, that have resettled in Atlanta. "It's a classic immigration pattern that has transplanted thousands of villages and towns from five or six states in the middle of Mexico to places around the United States," writes Bixler. (20)

Sacrificing families for futures?

The stories of Mexicans in Minneapolis reveal a stark contrast between the carefree optimism of single adults, who are sending thousands of dollars home each year, and low-income, heavy-laden parents who struggle to advance their families' fortunes in America while bearing its high cost of living.

Years ago the Hernandez family's ice cream parlor in Mexico City appeared to be doing well. But in reality, soaring utility bills forced them to scrounge for food and clothes left on curbs in wealthier neighborhoods. The Hernandez family felt especially deprived of two "capacities" that Americans take as basic rights—education and healthcare.

Mexico spends only $1,656 per student on education, one-third of the $5,450 average for the 30 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and public subsidies to health providers are a mere $662 per year for each Mexican compared to the $2,500 OECD average. (21)

The Hernandez family's brightest hope, their son, Fernando, embodies the tough and often ironic choices of many transborder families. An A-student, Fernando was already studying at a Mexican university at age 16. "He could have become a lawyer," said his mother.

The combination of Fernando's costly bronchitis treatment and his hopes for better educational opportunities convinced his parents to emigrate with him, leaving three daughters behind whom they planned to send for eventually. In doing so, however, they amassed $7,000 in debt to coyotes for safe passage: Fernando presented fake papers at a checkpoint; Mrs. Hernandez used a false visa and came by a conventional airline; and Mr. Hernandez fled through the desert on foot.

There was one obvious hitch to this plan: Fernando knew no English. "He learned enough to get along in a Minneapolis public school," said Mrs. Hernandez. But still, the adjustment, especially for a teenager, was difficult. "He was embarrassed that other students were better dressed," she said, "and he needed to work to help us survive and to send for his sisters."

Six years later Mr. and Mrs. Hernandez have missed much of their daughters' childhoods, Mr. Hernandez' painting business doesn't earn enough to cover their mortgage and utilities, and their three-bedroom home does not even meet their needs, said Mrs. Hernandez, who has had two more children since arriving in the US.

Fernando finally dropped out of school and worked at a car wash and Mrs. Fernando admits the move wasted Fernando's talent. "He'd have been better off at a Mexican university. If I had known then what I know now, I never would have come."

The story of immigration includes many such painful chapters. Some young people, like Fernando Hernandez, can't navigate the rough waters of two languages and cultures, violent neighborhoods, and poor school systems. They become statistics: 49 percent of gang members in the US are Latino, (22); 51 percent of all Latina teens have become pregnant at least once before age 20 (23); and 41 percent of all high school dropouts are Latino. (24)

Perhaps the highest cost is the agony of family separation. To grasp the hardship and harm that flow from this problem, one need only look at cities to the south that have been facing these consequences for generations. Many lower-class Mexican families with hopes for a better life find the educational, language, and unemployment barriers insurmountable. Some adults turn to drug dealing, theft, or prostitution to survive. Others are arrested for their undocumented status.

When a parent is in prison, children are left unsupervised. Often the oldest youth is then pulled from school, as was Fernando Hernandez, either to care for younger siblings or to work for rent money. Thus, the brightest hope of the family—the future of a ladder-climbing youth—is sabotaged. When parents are deported, their children, many of whom are US citizens by birth, are left behind—most with older siblings, relatives, or adoptive neighbors.

Legal status could change the picture

But history is also filled with success stories of rising fortunes for naturalized immigrants on American soil.

Consider Monica Romero, a business consultant at the Minneapolis Latino Economic Development Center, serving many of the 255 Latino business entrepreneurs on Lake Street. She came to the US at age 25 after being denied an advancement at the second largest bank in Colombia. "They used the excuse that they couldn't hire from inside, but that was ridiculous," she said, implying gender discrimination.

Since arriving on American soil, she has obtained her master's in business, empowered other women as a career coach at an agency called Women Venture, and has found her calling guiding dozens of Latinos/as through business plans and financing.


When Ernesto Reyes opened Me Gusta Market in 1993, he became the first Latino grocer of S. Minneapolis (photo by Todd Svanoe).

Or Ernesto Reyes, who came to Lake Street in 1993 as its first Latino grocer. All he needed was a patch of ground in an American city to develop Me Gusta Market, which now sells specialty meats to shoppers from miles around. By 2001, Reyes owned four grocery stores and three restaurants operated by his parents and five siblings.

Yet Romero and Reyes have found that moving from their improved standard of living to real wealth and economic security can be a nearly impossible leap. Lake Street's 255 shops, for example, have replaced criminal activity and brought  relative stability to the neighborhood. However, the owners have not escaped poverty by American standards. In fact, only 20 percent of the 255 Latino shops on Lake Street are "profitable," said Romero. And all have struggled with raised rent and slow business seasons.

Indeed, Reyes himself bought and renovated a business mall. When the investment failed, brought down by a struggling Latino tenant base, it caused his other seven businesses to fold as well.

Meanwhile, Minnesota's Governor Tim Pawlenty stirred up "Hispanic panic" by moving to overturn the Twin Cities' "don't ask, don't tell" undocumented immigrant sanctuary ordinances and directing law enforcement to work with US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, a further detriment to businesses attempting to set down roots. (25)

The bottom line for real poverty relief is that until a legal base is placed beneath the enterprising ambitions of the nearly 1 million undocumented Latinos who come to the US each year, (26) long-term generational stability is unlikely.

A groundbreaking study of the family trees of 20 successful African-Americans, including Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg, has found that 15 of the 20 celebrities are descended from a line of former slaves that obtained property by 1920, when only 25 percent of African Americans owned property. (27) Sadly, in America today, notes the author, "in the wake of the sub-prime mortgage debacle, an enormous number of houses (owned by low-income families) are being repossessed." Latino families and business owners are among these property owners.

Legal status is also necessary for continuing education. Countless aspiring youth have returned to Mexico after reaching the apex of legally allowed opportunities in the US. They may have shown great promise, graduated from high school, and qualified for scholarships, but were legally forbidden further progress.

The proposed federal DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act that has failed to gain cloture was designed to pave the way to citizenship for 1 million youth of unauthorized immigrants entering college or the military.(28) "I want to study!" exclaimed one Minneapolis youth interviewed for this story. "All I want to do is become a gym teacher and a soccer coach. If the president cares about education, he should make a way for everyone to go to college."

Todd Svanoe is a former journalist and urban ministry consultant living in South Minneapolis.


  1. U.S. side: Pew Hispanic Center Estimate, March, 2005; Mexican side: numbers from Mexico's Secretariat of Foreign Affairs reported by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, August 2006. On June 27, 2006, Frontline World reported in The Season of Death that 271 had died in 2005 trying to walk the Mexico-Arizona desert.
  2. Steven A. Camarota and John Keeley, The New Ellis Islands, September 2001, Center for Immigration Studies.
  3. Interview with community leader and celebration coordinator Susana Espinosa de Sygulla, January 9, 2008.
  4. US Government Accountability Office, September 2006; and Pew Hispanic Center, March, 2005.
  5. Mexico has had less than 4% unemployment for most of the past decade, Latin Focus; the US was at 5% unemployment in December of 2007.
  6. With the exception of Mexico's famous crisis of 1994 and a period of stagnation in 2001, CIA World Fact Book, 2008.
  7. "Mexico's economy," The Economist, Sep 27, 2007.
  8. Latin Focus.
  9. World Fact Book, Central Intelligence Agency update, February 12, 2008.
  10. George W. Grayson, Neighbor in Turmoil, 2007 Report, pp. 37-38, Foreign Policy Association.
  11. Interview with Rodolfo Gutierrez, Director of Hacer, a Latino research center in the Twin Cities, January 2008.
  12. Immigrating Mexicans are three times more high school educated than the general Mexican population. Pew Hispanic Center research, Star Tribune, The Money Pipeline, May 21, 2006.
  13. 55-60% of foreign-born Latin American adults had a high school education or higher at their date of immigration; Dr. Wendy Erisman and Shannon Looney, Opening the Door to the American Dream, Institute for Higher Education Policy, April 2007.
  14. World Bank 2004 figures, Urban Poverty in Mexico, p. 150.
  15. Pew Hispanic Center Research Report estimates by demographic expert Dr. Jeffrey Passel, based on the March 2005 Current Population Survey. Passel found that the most commonly held jobs among undocumented workers nationally, in descending order, are those of cook (436,000), construction worker (400,000), and maids and housecleaners (342,000).
  16. Julia Preston, figures reported by Mexico's central Inter-American Development Bank, New York Times, August 9, 2007.
  17. Numbers from 2003, according to pollster and consultant Sergio Bendixen, hired by the Inter-American Development Bank, when annual remittances were only $13 billion. "A Surge in Money Sent Home by Mexicans," by Ginger Thompson, New York Times, October 28, 2003.
  18. Kevin Diaz, "The Money Pipeline," Star Tribune, May 21, 2006.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Mark Bixler, "The village left behind," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 20, 2000.
  21. Grayson.
  22. Judith Greene and Kevin Pranis, Gang Wars, A Justice Policy Institute Report, July 2007.
  23. "Think Twice," Newsweek online, October 30, 2007, cites the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
  24. Child Trends Data Bank, 2005 figures.
  25. "Governor Pawlenty unveils actions to combat illegal immigration," Office of the Governor, Press Release, January 7, 2008.
  26. Estimate based on rising figures, "Illegal immigrants in the US: How many are there?", Brad Knickerbocker, Christian Science Monitor, May 16, 2006.
  27. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "Forty Acres and a Gap in Wealth," New York Times, November 18, 2007, op ed.
  28. Dave Michaels, "DREAM Act…fails Senate test vote," The Dallas Morning News, October 25, 2007.


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