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August 29, 2006

Mexican remittances at annual rate of $20 billion

From the AP: The Mexicans living abroad sent $11 billion home in the first half of 2006, an increase of 23 percent over the same period last year, the government news agency Notimex reported Friday. Remittances have become an increasingly important source of income for the country in recent years, surpassing tourism. They represent Mexico's second-largest source of foreign income after oil. They topped $20 billion for the first time in 2005, a 17 percent increase from the previous year.

This is double the rate of $10 billion used in analyzing the commerce of remittances by companies such as Wal-Mart.

August 27, 2006

Wal-Mart further penetrates the banking activities of Mexicans

From the Los Angeles Times comes an article about Wal-Mart’s upcoming creation of a Mexico-domiciled bank. Its initiative may have an important impact on how Mexicans in the United States conduct their financial transactions with their home country. There are several converging stories here. First, improving access to low cost banking in Mexico. Second, broadening of Wal-Mart’s extensive U.S. operations in check cashing and expediting remittances from workers to Mexico. Third, a complement to Wal-Mart’s U.S. plan to open “industrial loan corporations,” or stripped down banks, among its 3,900 domestic stores. All in all, Wal-Mart is becoming the banking intermediary of choice of Mexicans living and working in the U.S.

In a prior posting, I wrote how “the Mexican worker in U.S. remits on average $2000 a year to Mexico. Average individual remittance is $300, with transaction fees of $10 to $20. This is a $3.5 billion business growing to $10 billion. This source estimates that only 25% of Mexican workers have a bank account, which presumably supports its $10 billion forecast.”

Excerpts from the article:

The unit, Wal-Mart de Mexico, confirmed this month that it had applied for a banking license, raising the possibility that Wal-Mart shoppers south of the border soon may be opening checking accounts and taking out auto loans while filling up their grocery carts.

Mexican customers can already get store-branded credit cards that Wal-Mart offers through third-party providers. They can wire money, make deposits, cash checks and perform other transactions thanks to agreements the retailer has made with institutions including BBVA Bancomer and MoneyGram International to operate branches and ATMs inside some stores.

The Mexican unit of Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart operates 833 restaurants, supermarkets and retail stores under the names Wal-Mart Supercenter, Sam's Club, Suburbia, Bodega Aurerra, Superama and Vips.

[A Wal-Mart spokesman] said the company probably would start out offering basic savings accounts and credit cards in branches at some locations, eventually moving into checking, car loans, mortgages and even business credit.

The Treasury Ministry has granted licenses to six new banks in the last eight months. Half went to nontraditional lenders that plan to target lower-income Mexicans. Those were Banco Ahorro Famsa, owned by Monterrey-based appliance retailer Grupo Famsa; Banco Autofin Mexico, a unit of car and home financer Grupo Autofin; and Banco Compartamos, a venture of Compartamos, Mexico's largest micro-credit institution, which makes tiny business loans to the poor.

The movement stands in sharp contrast to the situation in the United States, where commercial enterprises are prevented by law from owning full-service banks. U.S. companies can obtain more restrictive charters to operate "industrial loan corporations" to process financial transactions or offer loans to their customers. Wal-Mart's pending application to open one of these specialized institutions in the U.S. has provoked an outcry from many community banks. The retailer said it intended to use the operation to process credit card and other electronic payments.

But small banks fear that the behemoth will use its charter as a backdoor route to opening branches in its 3,900 U.S. stores, threatening their business. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., trying to defuse the uproar, recently announced a six-month ban on granting charters for industrial loan corporations.

The vast majority of Mexico's 106 million citizens don't have a bank account or credit card, much less car or home loans. Annual interest rates on some bank credit cards top 70%. Mexico ranks lower than most of Latin America's other major economies in credit granted to the private sector as a percentage of GDP, data gathered by Morgan Stanley show.

This dearth of loans to consumers and businesses is a big drag on Mexico's development. Although low inflation and a stable economy have emboldened Mexico's big banks to step up consumer lending in recent years, they still largely ignore the poor and working classes. Millions of self-employed people who toil for cash in the informal economy as taxi driver Contreras does are deemed too risky by traditional banks.

But these consumers represent a potentially lucrative opportunity for Wal-Mart and other retailers, according to Jorge Kuri, a Latin America banking analyst with Morgan Stanley in New York. He said banking was a way to reap handsome lending spreads on deposits while offering one more service to lure shoppers through their doors.

"There is opportunity in the low-income market," Kuri said. "That's what these entities are going after."

August 24, 2006

A new legal tactic against illegal workers in California

The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) reports that a temporary employment agency has sued an erstwhile client under California’s unfair competition laws that it took business away from it by hiring illegal workers. the plaintiff,
Global Horizons, was itself a defendant in a Washington state case of cheating immigrant labor it recruited, and settled with a fine.

Frustrated businesses took their fight against illegal immigration to a Los Angeles court Tuesday, filing the first in a series of lawsuits accusing competitors of hiring illegal workers to achieve an unfair advantage. "We see the legal profession bringing to this issue the kind of effect it's had on consumer product safety,'' said Mike Hethmon of the Immigration Reform Law Institute, a Washington D.C.-based group backing the California cases.
In the complaint filed Tuesday, a temporary employment agency that supplies farm workers sued a grower and a two competing companies. Similar cases claiming violations of federal anti-racketeering laws have yielded mixed results. The California lawsuits are believed to be the first based on a state's unfair-competition laws, legal experts said. Santa Monica-based Global Horizons claimed in the lawsuit that Munger Brothers, a grower, hired illegal immigrant workers from Ayala Agricultural Services and J&A Contractors. All the defendants are based in California's farm-rich Central Valley.
The suit alleges that Munger Brothers had a contract with Global Horizons to provide more than 600 blueberry pickers this spring, but nixed the agreement so it could hire illegal immigrants. "Competitors hiring illegal immigrants is hurting our business badly,'' Global Horizons President Mordechai Orian said. "It's to the point that doing business legally isn't worth it.'' To prove competitors hire illegal immigrants, businesses could use public records involving prior violations, testimony from former employees who have worked alongside illegal immigrants, and recovered W-2 tax forms that show people working under fake names and Social Security numbers, said David Klehm, the lead lawyer for cases in Southern California.
Legal experts said the cases could be difficult to win. Under the California statutes, plaintiffs must prove a competitor directly harmed their business. "Unless you've got smoking gun evidence, it's hard to tie economic loss of one business to another's practices,'' said Niels Frenzen, a law professor at the University of Southern California.

August 23, 2006

Legal battle over WC coverage for illegal workers in AZ

Workers Comp Insider has done a good job on analyzing the situation in Arizona, where workers comp converage of undocumented workers now appears to hang on whether a comma was needed or not in a law enacted in 1925.

August 19, 2006

Homeland Security estimates of unauthorized immigrants January 2005

This study has some useful information about the size of the unauthorized population and the geographic origins. For the first time I see a figure indicating a rapid increase in the number of unauthorized Indians.

The study does not address the number of unauthorized workers. My guess is that a very high percentage of all of these immigrants are working, especially recent arrivals who probably do not come with families. For instance, the 2005 total figures for Mexicao and El Salvador are equal to 5.6% and 7.0% of their respective populations at home. I suspect that the American-based numbers represent more like 7.5% and 10% of the home workforces.

The study estimates the January 2006 figure at “nearly 11 million”, having risen by and “annual average” of 408,000 in the 2000-2004 period. The figure for January 2005 is 10.5 million.

Those within the 10.5 figure came to the U.S. in these time frames:

1980-1984 10%
1985-1989 11%
1990-1994 20%
1995-1999 30%
2000-2002 20%
2003-2004 9%

It estimates that 1/1/05 there were 27,320,000 foreign born ….10,500,000 of these being unauthorized.

Origins (figures in 000s)

Country 2005, 2000

Mexico 5970 4680
El Salvador 470 430
Guatamala 370 290
India 280 120
China 230 190
Korea 210 180
Philippines 210 200
Honduras 180 160
Brazil 170 100
Vietnam 160 160
other 2250 1950

August 18, 2006

ABCs of Immigration: H-2B (non-agricultural work) Visas

Once again Greg Siskind, immigration lawyer, lays out the basics of a visa program. I have already posted his introduction to the H-2A visa.

He can be contacted at Law Offices of Siskind Susser, P.C., Attorneys at Law; telephone: 800-748-3819, 901-682-6455; e-mail: gsiskind@visalaw.com: http://www.visalaw.com.

The H-2B visa is similar [to the agriculture-related H-2A visa], but is certification for temporary non-agricultural work. In essence, the visa is available when an employer can demonstrate that unemployed Americans are unavailable to fill the temporary position. The process is similar to the labor certification-based green card process except that the Department of Labor’s H-1B certification is not binding and the USCIS can independently decide to approve an H-2B status petition.

What kinds of jobs qualify for H-2Bs?

For a foreign worker to be covered by an H-2B visa, the job the employer offers needs three essential criteria:

• The job and the employer’s need must be one time, seasonal, peak load or intermittent;
• The job must be for less than one year; and
• There must be no qualified and willing U.S. workers available for the job.

When should an employer file for an H-2B visa?

The employer should file for H-2B status at least 60 days, but not more than 120 days before the worker is needed.

What are the steps an employer must follow to obtain H-2B certification?

The employer must go through an seven step process to obtain an H-2B visa:

1. The employer files a completed Form ETA 750 in duplicate to the local State Workforce Agency (SWA) covering the area of proposed employment.

2. The SWA informs the employer on requirements for recruitment, wage options, and working conditions offered and refers qualified candidates to the employer for interviews. The employer will also be required to advertise the position to demonstrate a lack of availability of American citizen and permanent resident workers.
3. The employer creates a recruitment report summarizing the results of the effort, including names and addresses of applicants, and reasons for not hiring particular interviewees. The employer must demonstrate that there are no immediately available citizen or permanent resident workers willing to work at the prevailing wage (or the actual wage paid by the employer if higher).

4. After an evaluation, the SWA will forward the applications to the appropriate National Processing Center (NPC).

5. The NPC certifying officer (CO) will review the applications. The CO will grant certification if he/she finds that qualified persons in the U.S. are unavailable and that the employment terms will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of workers in the U.S. similarly employed.

6. The certifications/denials are given to the employer, and used to support a visa petition filed with USCIS. The Labor Certification Determination and the form I-129 are submitted to the USCIS.

7. The foreign potential employee must apply for a visa at his or her respective U.S. Consulate.

New Orleans suit over H-2B guest workers

The Wall Street Journal (link not available) reported on a suit against Decatur Hotels, the largest pre-Katrina hotel firm in the City, alleging unfair and illegal exploitation of workers it had recruited to work.

The problems we hear about labor shortages in New Orleans and the Katrina cleanup are consistent with most post-disaster recoveries of large size. I have posted several times before about worker injury and work rights among cleanup workers for Katrina. One of the studies was by The New Orleans Workers Justice Coalition.

The lawsuit filed yesterday in federal court in Louisiana against closely held Decatur Hotels and Chief Executive F. Patrick Quinn III touches on the hot-button issue of finding workers for the Gulf Coast region following last year's devastating Hurricane Katrina. That debate centers on whether companies are hiring foreign workers, mainly Latino migrants, because they are cheaper or because there is a dearth of U.S. residents available to take blue-collar jobs. Many illegal immigrants, mainly from Latin America, have been flocking to New Orleans to do cleanup work.
The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, involves an unusual move by Decatur to recruit foreign workers under a government program, known as the H-2B guest-worker program. To qualify for the program, employers must prove to the government that they cannot find U.S. residents to fill the jobs in question. The program is designed to hire foreign workers to do temporary work in nonagricultural areas, often on a seasonal basis.
Several other companies in the region have also hired foreign workers under the guest-worker scheme after winning approval from the Labor Department, according to worker-rights organizations. About 300 foreign workers are believed to have been hired early this year by Decatur to do housekeeping, maintenance and other work at its properties, according to officials at the National Immigration Law Center, a Washington-based advocacy group involved in the case. In the lawsuit, 82 workers from Bolivia, Peru and the Dominican Republic allege that Decatur and Mr. Quinn violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to reimburse them for fees paid to labor recruiters working as agents of the hotel chain abroad, as well as travel expenses and visa fees adding up to as much as $5,000. The lawsuit says Decatur should have made those payments in their first week of work to comply with labor law. The lawsuit further states that the company exploited the workers' indebtedness and lack of familiarity with U.S. laws to violate their legal rights.

The lawsuit also alleges that the workers' high level of personal debt stemming from their entry to the U.S. has left them in "virtual debt peonage," since they can neither make enough money to pay off their debt by working for the hotel chain nor, under the provisions of their visas, can they work for any other employer to earn additional money. The suit also states that "in recent weeks their predicament has been complicated ... by failure to offer them 40 hours of work each week.".

"The Department of Labor takes any allegation of violations of federal labor law very seriously," said a spokesman, adding that the agency has stepped up enforcement in the Gulf Coast region since the hurricane with the deployment of Spanish-speaking investigators. That has resulted in recovering nearly $1.5 million in back wages for workers, he said.

The suit comes against the backdrop of an ongoing labor shortage in New Orleans. Nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina, "help wanted" signs abound there and elsewhere in the Gulf Coast, as the region suffers from a chronic shortage of workers. From restaurant work to construction and more skilled jobs, businesses are having a hard time filling positions. The problem of attracting workers to rebuilding efforts is made more complicated by the severe housing shortage, which has kept many residents from moving back. That in turn has slowed some of the rebuilding.

In New Orleans, immigrants are packed into tiny apartments and temporary shelters, and contractors vie for their services in prominent locations, such as Lee Circle, under the statue of Robert E. Lee, near the office towers of downtown.

Local officials, from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to Mississippi legislators, have vented frustration at the thousands of immigrant workers, many without legal work permits, who arrived in the region. However, the workers have performed much of the back-breaking cleanup work and filled some of the service jobs needed to help jump-start tourism in New Orleans and elsewhere along the coast. Mr. Nagin drew criticism when he expressed concern about the city being "overrun with Mexican" immigrants.

The lawsuit against Decatur and Mr. Quinn says that the employer asserted that it couldn't find laborers "despite the fact that local U.S. workers, mostly African Americans, had previously worked in this industry in New Orleans and were available to do so."

"If you paid these displaced people a living wage of $10 an hour and they could stay in the hotel and work there, a lot of these people would have taken the jobs," said Tracie Washington, a New Orleans civil-rights lawyer on the case. But, she added, "There is a real difference between hiring people in the community that will organize more easily and those who don't speak English and don't know the law of the United States."

At a news conference in New Orleans, the plaintiffs displayed the "application for alien employment certification" that Decatur filed to the Labor Department on Oct. 6, 2005. The application states in a space provided for describing efforts to recruit U.S. workers and results that, among other things, Decatur "offered work to hurricane evacuees. No one applied."

In 2002, agricultural guest workers won a similar legal case in the 11th Circuit against two Florida companies on the grounds that they hadn't reimbursed workers for their travel, visa and other expenses incurred to reach the U.S.

Write to Miriam Jordan at miriam.jordan@wsj.com and Evan Perez at evan.perez@wsj.com

August 15, 2006

Why the Basic Pilot program is a failure

Earlier this month, James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, took apart the basic Pilot Program, created in 1996, as an ineffective tool to confirm legal status of workers. He proposed instead that Homeland Security be given access to IRS taxpayer files, which he says will nab employers that persistently hire illegals because it will more accurately determine fake and borrowed social security numbers. I am posting here to address the critique of the Basic Pilot Program.

The program works voluntarily by employers setting up an account with the Social Security Administration. The employer enters online the SSN number a new employee has given it. If the feds come back with a report of no match, then the employers needs to either get better proof from the worker or fire the worker.

The author notes that 10% of all submissions create mismatches. I contend that any verification program—whether to catch illegal workers, catch student truancy or confirm theater reservations – with an exception rate of 10% and is shot full of ambivalent motivations will never succeed on a big scale.

He contends:

Essentially, Basic Pilot could not and cannot identify imposters or stop unauthorized workers from creating false documentation, nor can it hinder employers from illegally hiring unauthorized workers.
Basic Pilot does not address the prin­cipal means illegal workers use to get jobs. There are many ways an undocumented worker can get around the issue of work authorization. These include:

* using fraudulent documents;
* using information that belongs to another, thereby committing identity theft; and
* being hired by an employer who does not follow the law.

Basic Pilot did not prove efficient at eliminating any of these. Basic Pilot cannot stop undocumented workers from falsifying information or using some­one else’s information, thereby disallowing those legitimate workers whose information was stolen the authorization to work.

The report in full:

The U.S. economy includes a significant number of unlawfully present workers who are undocumented and unaccounted for. Research by the Government Account­ability Office (GAO) indicates an alarming degree of collaboration on the part of employers in hiring illegal workers.[1] This excessive acceptance of a shadow work­force encourages illegal border crossings, encourages other companies to break the law, and forces states and local communities to subsidize cheap, illegal labor by bearing social costs such as uncompensated emergency room care, education, and social services.

Both the House and the Senate have proposed legislation for strengthening workplace enforcement. Both envision using the Basic Pilot program, created in 1996 under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, as a principal tool for denying unlawfully present workers employment.[2] This approach fails on a three counts:

* It is unlikely that Basic Pilot will prove to be an effective tool;
* The implementation of the program will place excessive and unnecessary burdens on the U.S. economy; and
* There are practical and more effective means to enhance workplace enforcement.

I propose an enforcement strategy that could be implemented without creating more government and a huge and expensive information technology program. This strategy could be implemented by revising the U.S. tax code to facilitate cooperation between federal agencies in enforcing the law. I pro­pose amending the tax code in a way that will pro­tect privacy rights and still allow the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), with the cooperation of the Social Security Administration (SSA) and Inter­nal Revenue Service (IRS), to find those large employers who intentionally violate the law by hir­ing illegal workers and giving the government incorrect information.

What’s Wrong with the Basic Pilot Program?

The Basic Pilot program was created in 1996 as a part of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immi­grant Responsibility Act—along with the Citizen Attestation Verification Pilot, and the Machine Readable Document Pilot—with the purpose of electronically verifying the employment legitimacy of newly hired employees. One year later it was implemented in the five states with the largest immigrant populations (California, Florida, Illi­nois, New York, and Texas) in order to test its abil­ity at detecting false claims to U.S. citizenship, fraudulent documents, and stolen identities.[3]

Basic Pilot requires employers to send the work information of all newly hired employees to the Social Security Administration and to the then Immigration and Naturalization Service for work authorization. For each newly hired worker, the employer must first tap, via computer, into the SSA database to verify the worker’s Social Security num­ber. If the number matches the information in the SSA records, the worker is a U.S. citizen and no fur­ther action is required. If the worker has immigrant status, the employer must use the DHS database for further information, and if that information match­es the DHS records, the employee may continue to work. In the case that the employer’s information for the new employee does not match SSA or DHS records, the employer is responsible for giving the employee written notice of that fact. If the worker does not contest his non-confirmation status with SSA or DHS, the notice becomes final and the employer is required to fire the worker.[4]

In June of 2002, at Congress’s request, the Institute for Survey Research at Temple University and Westat evaluated Basic Pilot’s competency from the three perspectives of employers, employees, and federal agencies. In evaluating Basic Pilot’s ability to reduce fraudulent claims, the evaluation team concluded that about 10 percent of cases submitted to Basic Pilot were undocumented workers, not including those who were deterred from applying to Basic Pilot employers by the risk of getting caught. They also discovered that most employers engaged in prohibited practices. For example, 73 percent of employees who should have been informed of work authorization problems never received notice of non-confirmation from their employers.[5]

Essentially, Basic Pilot could not and cannot identify imposters or stop unauthorized workers from creating false documentation, nor can it hinder employers from illegally hiring unauthorized workers.

The evaluation team also found that Basic Pilot does not protect against privacy violations. Accord­ing to the 2002 report, the current design of the system does not prevent employers from illegally accessing employee information. The cost of the program has also become a burden for many employers, who cannot afford the $500 annual cost for operating the program. Those expenses do not include the approximately $10 million the federal government spent to set up the Basic Pilot program.[6]

Although Basic Pilot is “potentially a valid con­cept,” it cannot be implemented on a large scale.[7] As a volunteer program, Basic Pilot already has some constraints. Building the infrastructure for a government electronic information system to han­dle millions of transactions itself is costly enough. The necessary training, insurance for loss or leak­age of data, oversight, and redress would cost mil­lions more and take years to implement. Additionally, Basic Pilot does not address the prin­cipal means illegal workers use to get jobs. There are many ways an undocumented worker can get around the issue of work authorization.[8] These include:

* using fraudulent documents;
* using information that belongs to another, thereby committing identity theft; and
* being hired by an employer who does not follow the law.

Basic Pilot did not prove efficient at eliminating any of these. Basic Pilot cannot stop undocumented workers from falsifying information or using some­one else’s information, thereby disallowing those legitimate workers whose information was stolen the authorization to work.

Furthermore, trying to enforce and make man­datory a worker verification system to ensure that every unlawfully present individual is denied a job would unnecessarily hamper American business and the U.S. economy. To work lawfully in the United States, those who are not U.S. citizens must receive DHS authorization. A national-level Basic Pilot program would question the legitimacy of documented workers’ right to work. Even a small percentage of stolen identities would negatively affect millions of Americans with a legitimate right to work, which could result in a dramatic loss of billions of dollars in industrial productivity.[9]

Additionally, building a government information system to handle transactions could fall prey to a plethora of problems—technological failures, vio­lation of privacy rights, and leaked information are just some among the many costs taxpayers would have to bear. [10]

For all its other shortfalls, Basic Pilot fails most because it represents a bad strategy. It is:

* Unnecessary. Undocumented workers are not distributed uniformly throughout the econ­omy. They are concentrated in a few sectors, including construction, agriculture, and some service industries. Saddling the entire econ­omy with the costs of electronic verification makes no sense
* Inefficient. Given the often inaccurate and out­dated data in SSA records, as well as limited technology, chances are that a small percentage of false records would affect millions of Ameri­cans who have a legitimate right to work. This would also cause an unacceptable loss of pro­ductivity totaling in the billions of dollars.

* Intrusive. The program would run afoul of legitimate privacy concerns. Both the govern­ment and employers would have access to massive databases of information, which would surely tempt some to traffic in identity theft.

* Costly. An electronic verification of every single U.S. worker would end up costing a lot. Not only would the infrastructure of building a tech­nology system that could handle millions of transactions be expensive, but providing train­ing, insurance, oversight, and redress would take years to implement and be incredibly expensive. In the event of lost or leaked data, more unwanted privacy issues would occur.

What Is the Right Strategy?

The right strategy would give DHS the resources and authority to target large-scale employers in the sectors of the economy where undocumented workers are most present (e.g., agriculture, services industries, and construction). It would provide a complement of incentives and enforcement mea­sures to wean employers from the shadow work­force. And it would be a set of tools that could be implemented quickly, so that in conjunction with increased border enforcement and legal alternatives for South–North migration, the government can redress the balance between the attractiveness of legal and illegal entry into the United States now— not years from now.

The Department of Homeland Security has already taken a step in the right direction. In an effort to strengthen immigration enforcement, DHS recently expanded its worksite enforcement efforts. In April 2006, DHS announced an interior enforce­ment strategy that comprises increased efforts to target employers who hire unauthorized workers and immigration violators and who tap into crimi­nal networks of illegal immigration. DHS has been bringing criminal charges against these offenders, rather than relying on administrative fines. The GAO reports that DHS has increased its numbers of worksite enforcement arrests from 160 in 2004 to 176 in 2005, and its numbers of criminal convic­tions from 87 to 160 over the same period. DHS plans on expanding worksite enforcement man­power by 206 positions in 2007.[11]

In addition to these recent initiatives, past efforts at targeted workplace enforcement have proven effective as well. The lesson is clear. Targeted work­place enforcement works and it does not require millions of dollars of new technology, more intru­sive government, or expensive new programs to make it happen.

What Has to Change?

Congress can help by giving DHS the tools it needs to gain effective interagency cooperation with the SSA and the IRS. The top priority here must be addressing the prohibition against shar­ing Social Security mismatch data. Currently, Sec­tion 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code does not allow the IRS to release any taxpayer information, even to other government agencies for purposes of workplace verification. According to the GAO report and the Temple University evaluation, approximately 10 percent of Social Security num­bers submitted by employers do not match SSA master records.[12] Ten percent amounts to nearly nine million workers. Granted, some mismatches are innocuous and result from misspelling, but most have no other explanation than an employ­er’s attempt to avoid the law and hire undocu­mented workers.

The SSA and the IRS should have to share infor­mation, such as relates to Social Security number mismatches or identity thefts, with the Department of Homeland Security. DHS has the authority to take action not only against employers, but against illegal immigrants. If DHS is given access to SSA and IRS information on cases of mismatched or sto­len Social Security numbers, DHS could better ful­fill its immigration law enforcement. Within a few years, DHS could feasibly target one-third of the illegal workforce—close to five million unautho­rized workers.

In order to make the most efficient use of Social Security mismatch information, DHS should focus its enforcement efforts on worst offenders and abusers of that system. The most practical way of dealing with fraud would be to identify the employers who abuse the system in order to hire illegitimate workers. While it may not be possible to track all of the employers who turn a blind eye to the law, the worst violators could easily be caught using the information they release to SSA. Those who, according to GAO, give at least 10 new employees the same Social Security number throughout a year obviously are in collusion with their illegal workers and should be prosecuted for non-compliance with the law.[13]

Employers must also respond to the mismatch letters from SSA when their employees’ informa­tion does not match master records. Most mis­matches are probably harmless, due to misspellings or name changes, but some mismatches are intend­ed to hide the employment of undocumented work­ers. Employers who do not respond to SSA’s non-confirmation letters could be easily tracked. I believe cracking down on the worst abusers of the system is the most efficient way of tracking fraud and punishing it.

As part of the worksite enforcement effort, Basic Pilot should continue to operate and should remain a small-scale, voluntary program. To render it more useful for enforcement purposes, DHS should have the authority to randomly investigate and audit employers who participate in the program. (DHS does not currently have access to Basic Pilot partic­ipant information.) Additionally, to make the pro­gram more cost-efficient and to alleviate the financial burden on employers, Basic Pilot could utilize a protected Web-based system for informa­tion submission. Basic Pilot offers one more tool for DHS to employ in its efforts to enforce immigration policies.

One additional enforcement measure would be to strengthen the tax code to restrict the ability of employers to file the wages of illegal workers as tax-deductible. As part of targeted enforcement, Con­gress should amend the tax code to remove the tax-deductibility of wages paid to unauthorized aliens. This would further strengthen the hand of DHS in securing the cooperation of American businesses by creating the right incentives for employers to hire through the legal channels.[14]

Increasing civil penalties for intentionally hiring illegal workers should also be considered.

Additionally, DHS should be able to establish “safe harbor” information-sharing systems and oth­er incentives to work with employers who are actively seeking to reduce their reliance on undoc­umented workers.

To address privacy concerns, DHS should assess the extent of information sharing it needs from the SSA and the IRS, and establish how the information will be utilized to conduct workplace enforcement. DHS also should develop safeguards to protect tax­payer information against misuse.

Immigration Reform Is Also Required

Strengthening enforcement of employer hiring practices is only one component of what should be a comprehensive approach. Better border security is also necessary. But just as important, legal oppor­tunities for migration have to be provided to give incentive to individuals not to cross the border ille­gally and to encourage employers to find legitimate workers. This could include the creation of a tem­porary worker program to meet the needs of the American economy. Some undocumented workers are in America temporarily with the plan of increas­ing their monetary assets and then returning home. A temporary worker program would create the cor­rect incentives for these immigrants to apply for tem­porary documentation to work legally in the U.S.

The job market should determine the allocation of temporary guest workers, not the government. However, if employers go to great lengths to hide some of their illegal employees and give SSA false Social Security numbers, the odds are that their business does depend on these immigrant workers, and the demand will be relatively high. I believe the law should also require compliance bonds for employers. Compliance bonds would mandate that employers arrange for transportation and the room and board of guest workers, which adds to the employer’s expenses if the guest workers were to overstay their visas. Over time, this should create incentives for employers to ensure their guest workers leave the U.S. at the end of their 10-month visa term.

Any temporary worker program should serve to strengthen, rather than undermine, the value of citizenship and the health of civil society. In addition, it must meet minimum security concerns, including appropriate security, criminal, and health screening measures before individuals enter the United States. No temporary worker program should include amnesty. Individuals should have to return to their place of origin to apply to enter the United States legally. This is an essential deter­rent to future illegal border crossing and unlawful presence.[15]

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Pol­icy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation. This testimony was submitted to the House Government Reform Committee’s Subcom­mittee on Regulatory Affairs

U.S. was 12.4% immigrant in 2005, vs. 11.2% in 2000

The New Times reports on the findings of the 2005 American Community Survey. The Survey results confirm what has been discerned already: more immigrants, chief among them Mexicans, and more spread out across the country.

Two decades ago, demographers said, some 75 percent to 80 percent of new immigrants settled in one of the half-dozen gateway states and tended to stay there. Then, in the last 10 to 15 years, the pattern shifted and increasing numbers began to stay in the gateways briefly and then move. Now, they say, the pattern is that more immigrants are simply bypassing the gateways altogether.

The Times reports that the survey is intended as an annual bolster to the bureau’s constitutionally mandated census of the country’s population every 10 years. It began as a test program in 1996 and has gradually expanded to where it can now provide detailed data for nearly 7,000 geographic areas, including all Congressional districts and counties or cities of 65,000 or more.

It goes on:

“What’s happening now is that immigrants are showing up in many more communities all across the country than they have ever been in,” said Audrey Singer, an immigration fellow at the Brookings Institution. “So it’s easy for people to look around and not just see them, but feel the impact they’re having in their communities. And a lot of these are communities that are not accustomed to seeing immigrants in their schools, at the workplace, in their hospitals.”

By far the largest numbers of immigrants continue to live in the six states that have traditionally attracted them: California, New York, Texas, Florida, New Jersey and Illinois. Immigrants also continue to flow into a handful of states in the Southeast, like Georgia and North Carolina, a trend that was discerned in the 2000 census. But it is in the less-expected immigrant destinations that demographers find the most of interest in the new data. Indiana saw a 34 percent increase in the number of immigrants; South Dakota saw a 44 percent rise; Delaware 32 percent; Missouri 31 percent; Colorado 28 percent; and New Hampshire 26 percent.

“Essentially, it’s a continuation of the Mexicanization of U.S. immigration,” said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies. “You would expect Mexicans to be increasing their share in places like Georgia and North Carolina, which already saw some increases, but they’ve also increased their share of the population, and quite dramatically, in states like Michigan, Delaware and Montana.”

More of America’s immigrants, legal or not, come from Mexico than any other country, an estimated 11 million in 2005, compared with nearly 1.8 million Chinese and 1.4 million Indians.

August 11, 2006

Pew Hispanic Center: immigration has not hurt American workers

The Washington Post reports on a new study concluding that American workers have not been harmed by immigrant labor. From the summary of the report, below, I’m not sure how much confidence I have in it. A major limitation of all the immigrant impact studies I have seen is that they do not take into account concentration of immigrant labor in industries which may be in fast growth mode and also cyclical. New immigrant labor in a region may depress wages of Americans in some fields and actually stimulate better wages and job growth for Americans in other fields by providing scarce resources of low wage labor. Skilled American construction workers can be said to benefit by the supply of unskilled and semi-skilled immigrant labor.

The article includes these passages:

High levels of immigration in the past 15 years do not appear to have hurt employment opportunities for American workers, according to a new report. The Pew Hispanic Center analyzed immigration state by state using U.S. Census data, evaluating it against unemployment levels. No clear correlation between the two could be found. Other factors, such as economic growth, have likely played a larger role in influencing the American job market, said Rakesh Kochhar, principal author of the report and an economist at the Pew Hispanic Center.

The study used Census Bureau data to compare the influx of immigrants and unemployment rates in each state between 1990 and 2000, a period of robust economic growth, and between 2000 and 2004, a period of slower growth. "We are simply looking for a pattern across 50 states, and we did not find one," Kochhar said. "We cannot say with certainty that growth in the foreign population has hurt or helped American jobs."

In the 10 states with the top employment rates from 2000 to 2004, for example, five states showed a high influx of immigrants while the other five showed little growth in the foreign-born population. "Even in relatively slow economic times, a relationship fails to reveal itself," Kochhar said.

Some economists expressed reservations about the technique yesterday, arguing that such broad statewide data do not give an accurate picture of immigration's effects on the labor market. "There's an age, gender and educational component to this story that this report does not address," said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. Between 1990 and 2000, he said, immigrant workers did not take jobs away from American workers "because the strong economy was creating enough jobs to employ everyone who was looking for work." But in the past five years, a subset of the workforce -- native-born men age 16 to 24 with high-school diplomas -- have in fact been displaced by immigrants, he said. "We argue that immigrant labor has changed the nature of work in a very negative way," Sum said.

On the local level, too, some experts disputed the findings of the Pew report. While educated workers with specialized skills are not likely to be displaced by foreign-born workers, young unskilled laborers have felt the pinch in recent years, said Steven A. Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies in the District.

A recent study done by the center shows that the immigrant share of the young workforce in Maryland and Virginia nearly doubled in the past five years, peaking at 22 percent and 15 percent, respectively, in 2005. "Native workers who have little education in Maryland and Virginia are dropping out of the labor markets in droves" as the number of immigrants grows, he said. "Unskilled workers only account for a fraction of the total economic output, but if immigration plays a role in even a part of [the trend], that's something we should be concerned about."

The report pointed out that immigrants typically move to booming areas of the country with low unemployment rates. "It's unclear as to whether immigrant workers help to cause that boom, but they certainly haven't detracted from it," said Randy Capps, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute.

August 3, 2006

ABCs of Immigration – H-2A (agriculture work) visas

By Greg Siskind, from from http://www.visalaw.com

The H-2A temporary agricultural visa is a nonimmigrant visa which allows foreign nationals to enter the U.S. to carry out temporary or seasonal agricultural labor or services. Given estimates that more than half of America’s agricultural workers are undocumented immigrants, the use of the H-2A visa is becoming more and more important.

What are employers required to do to obtain workers on H-2A visas?

Generally, employers must satisfy two criteria to hire nonimmigrant workers when filing an application with the USCIS:

1. The employer must show that able, willing, and qualified US workers are not available at the time and place needed

2. The employer must show that an adverse effect on wages or working conditions of similarly employed US workers will not result from the employment of foreign workers

Who may file an application for an H-2A visa?

• An agricultural company or employer who expect a shortage of U.S. workers needed to perform temporary or seasonal agricultural labor or services
• An authorized agent filing on behalf of an agricultural employer

The employer may be an individual proprietorship, a partnership or a corporation. A collective of agricultural producers may file as either a sole employer, a joint employer with its members, or act as an agent on behalf of its members.

What steps must employers follow to do to obtain workers via the H-2A process?

First, two copies of the ETA-750 are filed, of which one should be sent to the appropriate Department of Labor (“DOL”) region, and the other to the respective state workforce agency (“SWA”) for the state in which the work is sought. This application has to be submitted at least 45 days before the H-2A temporary workers are needed and it also has to be approved by the DOL before the starting work date. The application fees, which must be paid by the employer, include $100 base fee plus $10 for each position certified, up to a maximum of $1000.

Second, recruitment efforts follow, which are directed by the SWA for H-2A positions in one of three ways: the SWA refers candidates to the employer (with the employer using the state’s electronic data bank), the employer conducts independent recruitment, or the recruitment is conducted after the SWA certifies the applications. Generally, referrals come from the state agencies. Employers are required to hire US workers who apply for work until half of the contract period is over.

Third, following the recruitment period, a decision is made regarding certification. The SWA subtracts the number of US workers successfully referred from the total number of workers requested by employers to calculate and certify the remaining job openings.

Once certification is granted, the application is then filed with the DOL national processing center, which it may be filed for multiple unnamed workers. As they become available, however, the DOL must be provided with names. Finally, following DOL approval, the workers can then apply for visas at the appropriate consulate office.

What might be some reasons for which the DOL might not issue certification?

One pitfall preventing certification is if the DOL determines that US workers have filled all the job openings, or for example, if the DOL determines that H-2A candidates have been offered better working conditions than their US counterparts. Another reason preventing certification could be if a strike or a lockout results, or if the employer is in significant violation of the H-2A program with the previous two years. Yet another block could be if the employer fails to show that H-2A workers will be covered by workers compensation, or if the employer fails to comply with the recruitment efforts.

How long are the H-2A visas valid?

Generally, the H-2A visas are valid for a one year maximum. Extensions of up to one year, however, are possible but with a maximum of three years. After the alien has spent three years in the US under the H-2A status, then the alien must leave for six months before continuing H-2A employment. Subsequent to this time, however, the alien can reenter the US in any status not based on the performance of agricultural work.

How do employers calculate workers’ earnings?

Usually farm workers receive either an hourly wage or are paid by the piece. Under the H-2A program, however, workers have to be offered a wage equal to that of US workers. In the past, this has been interpreted to mean the higher payout of the following:

• The prevailing industrial wage in the relevant labor market
• The state or federal minimum wage
• The “adverse effect wage rate” (“AEWR”)

For workers earning money by the piece, an employer must pay any difference between worker earnings and the AEWR. Additionally, on or before each day the H-2A worker is paid, the employer must provide the worker with an earnings statement listing total earnings, hours of work offered versus actually worked, and whether the worker is paid hourly or by the piece.

What benefits are employers required to provide the workers?

• Transportation to and from the workers’ temporary home to the workplace
• When the contract period is up, transportation home or to their next workplace
• Housing to all workers who do not commute, which must be inspected by the Department of Labor as well as meet minimum federal standards for temporary labor camps
• Either three meals a day or facilities in which the workers can prepare food
• Any tools and supplies necessary to perform the work
• Workers compensation insurance where required by state law; if state law does not require it, the employer must provide equivalent insurance

A closer look at Immigration Voice

The Washington Post profiles Immigration Voice and its founder, Aman Kapoor. “Immigration Voice boasts 3,000 members; a fundraising goal of $200,000; and, most notably, a partnership with a high-powered lobbying firm, Quinn Gillespie & Associates LLC. The group's transformation from an insular circle to a politically active movement offers a window into an alternative immigrant campaign being waged as the Senate this week resumes its work on immigration laws.”

Most members and all the core organizers of Immigration Voice hail from India, though Chinese membership numbers in the hundreds and is on the rise. Most arrived on an international student visa or a visa known as the H-1B, reserved for highly skilled workers who can stay for up to six years -- unless an employer sponsors their green cards, which grant immigrants permanent residence in the United States and the right to live and work here freely. Over the past decade, the largest numbers of H-1Bs have been awarded to high-technology workers from India and China.

Many of the members are stuck in green card application purgatory:

About a half-million immigrants are caught in the green-card backlog, some as they wait for Labor Department approval or because quotas have been exceeded. In that time, they cannot be promoted or given substantial pay increases because that would mean a change in job description and salary. They turn to Web sites to compare their wait times with others, and their Internet handles, such as "stucklabor" and "waiting_labor," exude their frustration.
While the immigrant marchers' demands have covered a range of issues, including allowing immigrants to gain legal status and eventually citizenship, the members of this association are more narrowly focused: They want Congress to pass measures that would end the years-long wait for a green card. In fact, they warn that efforts to enable millions of illegal immigrants to remain here permanently would result in the same bureaucratic nightmare legal immigrants are now facing.
Another possible cause it has not been active in yet is increasing the number of H-1B visas:
Under a proposal introduced by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the number of employment-based green cards being issued would increase from 140,000 to 290,000. Currently, no one country is supposed to take up more than 7 percent of the allotment, though unused green cards can be redistributed to countries that have already met their quota. That has made possible migrations in excess of 7 percent from nations such as India, China, Mexico and the Philippines. Under the proposal, the per-country cap would be increased to a hard and fast 10 percent. Proponents say this would prevent one country from dominating the category and would retain jobs for native-born Americans.

A profile of one volunteer:

During meetings on Capitol Hill, Maduros and at least one Immigration Voice representative lay out the group's platform, weaving in the personal stories of members. Shilpa Ghodgaonkar, a Germantown housewife, has become a staple anecdote -- and a frequent visitor on the Hill. For four years, she and her husband have been waiting for their green cards. Ghodgaonkar's husband arrived on an H-1B visa, and she followed as his dependent, unauthorized to work here. To pass the time, she learned to cook. Then she volunteered as a career counselor in Montgomery County. Last year, she earned her MBA from George Washington University. In December, around the time Kapoor sent out his e-mail plea for mass mobilization, Ghodgaonkar had run out of options. "I just couldn't keep quiet anymore," Ghodgaonkar said. "I cannot be depressed anymore."

August 1, 2006

“Building boom in Mexican town was born in Minnesota”

This Bremerton, WA Kitsap Sun article is about as insightful an analysis of inter-country financial flows from low wage immigrant workers as I have seen. A southern Mexico town of 30,000 is receiving about $2,000 per resident per year in remittances!

By Kevin Diaz, July 12, 2006

A pickup truck with Minnesota plates bounced down the dirt road on the edge of town, raising clouds of reddish dust. It caught the eye of a grazing Brahman bull and disappeared behind a clutch of mango trees bordering a new subdivision, where tangles of steel reinforcing bars sprouted from the roofs of unfinished concrete block houses.
Many of the new houses were paid for with money sent by a secret workforce in Minnesota. By Mayor Leopoldo Rodriguez's estimate, almost a third of the town's workers have crossed the border - many of them illegally - and headed north to work in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area over the past 10 years.
The money they wire back arrives daily by police escort in armored trucks. Altogether, it comes to between $4 million and $7 million a month, according to money-transfer agencies in the Twin Cities region. The cash has forged an economic link between Axochiapan and Minneapolis-St. Paul that is part of a global trend. It is changing Axochiapan, one household at a time.
Padre Miguel Franco Galicia, parish priest at the Church of San Pablo in Axochiapan…has visited Minneapolis several times to minister to his expatriate parishioners. He estimates that at least 60 percent of Axochiapan's population receives money from family members working in the United States, most of them in Minnesota. 'To be honest, I think there are more pluses than minuses, from an economic point of view,' he said. 'But the social devastation is enormous.'
Axochiapan (pronounced Ah-sho-chee-AH-pahn), a town of about 30,000 in southern Mexico, has known little but poverty for centuries. People made a living by farming, or by working in the gypsum mines outside of town. The recent flow of Minnesota money has improved life. Pizza deliveries, aerobics studios and Internet cafes, alongside tortilla shops and taquerias, now serve an increasingly cosmopolitan population.

More below….

The past decade has seen an explosion in emigration from poorer countries to the United States, the majority of it from Mexico.

Mexican immigrants, both legal and illegal, sent an estimated $20 billion back home last year from the United States. This rivals the $25 billion that Mexico takes in from oil exports.

It's not just happening in North America. More than $223 billion flows annually from migrant workers in the United States and other developed countries to poorer nations around the world. It's a flow that is transforming families, towns and, in some cases, entire countries, creating a new force in the global economy.

By dint of its migrant workforce in Minnesota, that global economy has come to Axochiapan.

Residents say the money pipeline has changed it from a provincial farm town to something almost reminiscent of the United States. There's a new hospital, built mostly with Minnesota money, and hundreds of new houses. American cars with Minnesota plates roar down the town's streets. And stores carry the latest CD players. All of which leaves residents worrying about prices inflated by the steady stream of American dollars.

This kind of money and labor flow has major consequences. In Axochiapan, the lure of American money has created a town where fathers and husbands are absent for years on end, women are left alone to raise the children, and the community is growing increasingly dependent on money made elsewhere.

Padre Miguel Franco Galicia, parish priest at the Church of San Pablo in Axochiapan, understands the lure of the green check. Padre Miguel has visited Minneapolis several times to minister to his expatriate parishioners. He estimates that at least 60 percent of Axochiapan's population receives money from family members working in the United States, most of them in Minnesota.

'To be honest, I think there are more pluses than minuses, from an economic point of view,' he said. 'But the social devastation is enormous.'

Pizza and the Internet

Axochiapan (pronounced Ah-sho-chee-AH-pahn), a town of about 30,000 in southern Mexico, has known little but poverty for centuries. People made a living by farming, or by working in the gypsum mines outside of town. The recent flow of Minnesota money has improved life. Pizza deliveries, aerobics studios and Internet cafes, alongside tortilla shops and taquerias, now serve an increasingly cosmopolitan population.

'Axochiapan would not be growing like it is without the people who go up north to work,' said Antonio Estudillo, an aide to the mayor. 'They suffer to bring a better life to their families.'

Estudillo knows this firsthand. He made enough money working for a money-transfer agency in Minneapolis four years ago to build a house for his family and open a stationery store for his wife.

His friend Eduardo Navarro has seen business at his Axochiapan grocery store shoot up 50 percent in the past decade because of the money sent by migrants in America.

And then there's Jose Campos, who parlayed his wages from a dishwashing job in Minneapolis into a video arcade in Axochiapan. Campos also runs a long-distance telephone service, charging cash for the use of his phone. Many of his customers call relatives in Minnesota.

A pool of potential migrants

Even though thousands of workers - primarily men - have left, Axochiapan's population has held steady. That's because the town's prosperity has become a magnet for farmers from the surrounding countryside, people who traditionally cultivated corn, sugar cane and onions.

They can be seen selling their produce beneath the colorful tarps of the town's open-air market, which has doubled in size over the past decade. Now they represent a growing pool of potential new migrants.

The town has changed in other ways, too. Until recently, sewage and refuse piled up in dry creek beds along dusty side streets. There were no fire trucks and only one ambulance, which served a single overcrowded hospital near the bus station.

Now the town has money for sewer pipes and a new sewage treatment plant. Money is being raised for a second ambulance and a firetruck, courtesy of a group of Axochiapan expatriates in Minnesota.

The most conspicuous improvement is the gleaming white private hospital, the $3 million Clinica San Antonio, built almost entirely with Minnesota money. The hospital was built by the family that owns Envios America, a money-wire agency that handles a large part of the remittance market from the Twin Cities.

That money gives the town a future, said Envios America manager Fabiel Sanchez. 'Five years ago, we didn't have the Internet and cell phones,' he said. 'People are better dressed now, and cement houses are replacing old adobe structures.'

Just about every week, young men set off from Axochiapan bound for Minnesota or other parts of the United States. Many go as soon as they graduate from high school.

The average weekly wage in Axochiapan is about 600 pesos, or $60. That's about one-sixth of what most immigrants can make in the States.

'They see the things that people have who have worked in America,' said Omar Lorenzo, a traveling salesman in Axochiapan. 'They want to make money.'

Cash economy

As Axochiapan prepared for a recent festival, Osvaldo Pliego pulled up to the church of San Pablo. He was driving a Dodge minivan with Minnesota plates. In the back, he carried a load of drums, torches, and other things his band would need for that night's procession.

In Minnesota, where he worked construction for five years, the van had carried the tools of a different trade. Now, back in his hometown, he also used the van as a taxi.

Like many of those driving newer American cars, Pliego couldn't have bought a car in Mexico. That's due in part to the difference in wages. But another key reason is the financing, which is out of reach for most workers in this country town.

And the absence of a mortgage industry means that residents must pay cash for a house. A typical concrete-block home is about $15,000 - far too expensive for the average farm worker, who makes about $10 a day.

Not all feel the pull north

Some people are starting to wonder how long the American money pipeline can last, particularly as political leaders in Washington push legislation to fortify America's border with Mexico.

Some economists also question whether this steady infusion of American dollars truly improves the fortunes of towns like Axochiapan, or makes them increasingly reliant on future generations of migrants. They fear that the flow of American money has fostered a culture of dependency that stifles local work.

Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., says that the millions of dollars sent back to towns such as Axochiapan cause inflation and sap enterprise.

'It goes back to national aspiration,' he said. 'Sure, I can work in the fields, and sure, I can open up a business. But why don't I just go to Minneapolis illegally and work for a while?'

Not everyone in Axochiapan feels the pull north. One who has resisted fiercely is Jose Sarafin, a 56-year-old gypsum miner with leathery hands and a sister and brother in Minneapolis.

'Yes, you can make money in America,' he said. 'But I'm proud of my work. We can live well here.'

Other locals decry the migration north as a continuation of Mexico's historic domination by the United States. They fear the weakening of traditions and the loss of their regional identity. 'Unfortunately, those who leave are the young,' said Isodoro Sanabria, a retired high school history teacher in Axochiapan. 'Many get spoiled by life in America, or they start new families there, or only bring back problems like drug addiction.'

Sanabria worries about a drain on the town's talent and brains; those who head north, he said, seem to be the ones with the most ambition and education.

Studies by the Pew Hispanic Center indicate that those who go to the States have a higher level of education than the adult population of Mexico at large.

Mexican author Pablo Ruben Villalobos, who has written a poem praising Axochiapan's indigenous roots, says: 'The money is a great help, but you have to think about who is left behind and what's lost.'

Maria Luisa Morales is one of those left behind. A widow and a church volunteer, she tends pigs and chickens in the back yard of her tidy stucco house next to a gypsum plant.

Her son Roberto sends money from Minneapolis, where he is a landscaper. She hasn't seen him in six years. 'He said he would be gone a year,' she said.

Roberto left Axochiapan when he was 20, following a girlfriend who had gone to Minneapolis. Since then, he has sent enough money back to help build a house for his sister.

But now he also has a house and a child in Minnesota - a grandson Morales has seen only in photos.

Her son is in the United States illegally, and visiting Mexico would mean another risky border crossing back to Minnesota. Morales is coming to terms with the thought that he might never come back. That thought fills her with dread.

'I ask him if he likes it there,' she said. 'It takes him awhile to say yes, and in his silence I believe that the real answer is no.'

'Their only sin'

The Rev. Lawrence Hubbard ('Padre Lorenzo') of Incarnation Catholic Church in Minneapolis and Padre Miguel of Axochiapan pray with many of the same families, separated by 2,000 miles and an international border.

Some of their immigrant parishioners call the priests the glue that holds the two cities together. Both men say they try to discourage the migration and family separation, even though they understand the reasons behind it.

'Lots of people expect to come here (to Minnesota), work and then go back,' Padre Lorenzo warned. 'That's the ideal, and it does happen. But it's not that common.'

Studies show that a third or more of the migrants go home again, but increasingly more are staying in the United States - or are trying to stay.

The sight of half-constructed houses in Axochiapan, the ones with the rusting reinforcing bars jutting out of unfinished concrete walls, are a testament to broken dreams - or permanent detours to America for workers who have not returned.

The danger of romantic betrayal and family abandonment is very real in a population of young men far from home.

'If you're a man (in America), it's hard to be faithful to your wife in Mexico,' said Padre Lorenzo. 'You have to live a life of abstinence.'

Depression is a common affliction for the migrants he counsels. The same is true for migrants' families in Axochiapan who seek out Padre Miguel.

'America can offer success or failure,' Padre Miguel said. 'People go to the United States to find work, but they also find alcoholism, drugs and family breakup. They make money, but they lose sight of God.'

Still, he knows that it's the desire for modern housing and a decent life that is driving the rush north.

'Their only sin,' he said, 'is they want to work to make a better life for their families.'