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After accelerated migration: conceptualizing return
After the mid-2000s, accelerated migration came to an end, a consequence of the financial crisis, and, to a lesser extent, the gr owing criminalization of immigration. As return migration to Mexico increased, scholars—ourselves included—grappled with conceptualizing return. Neoclassical or social network theories developed to explain the growth of migration flows in a context of migrant circularity could not be applied in reverse. They were no longer useful in the political economic context that presented itself in the first decades of the twenty-first century (Sandoval & Zuniga, 2016). Our historical-structural framework to migration and return migration takes as a starting point the idea that short-cycle migration in Puebla develops within the context of the configuration of an economic block—the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—that required the development of a labor force that corresponded to new forms of accumulation in the hemisphere. The changes in accumulation regimes, detailed in Chapter 2, created mobility patterns between Mexico and the United States that selected for particular individuals in Mexico. In the context of the economic crisis and slow
Migration, class and gender 5 recovery, return migration was also selective. In order to understand selectivity, the conditions of social reproduction on both sides of the border form a central part of our analysis.
Social reproduction refers to the “social capacities” of sustaining biological processes of life and meaningful social connections that are essential to households and broader communities (Fraser, 2016). Most often performed by women, social reproductive labor unfolds in the domestic and family sphere— often as unpaid labor—and also in the state, market and community (Bhattacharya, 2017; Glenn, 2004; Kofman & Raghuram, 2015). Capital accumulation requires social reproduction; however, “capitalism’s orientation to unlimited accumulation tends to destabilize the very processes of social reproduction on which it relies” (Fraser, 2016, p. 100). As we will see, the tensions and conflicts that traverse migrants’ lives are manifestations of the destabilization of social reproduction.
This historical-structural-social reproductive approach to the short migration cycle that developed in Puebla departs from the dominant theoretical perspectives on migration and return. To review these theories in depth is beyond the scope of this chapter. We refer readers to overviews written by others (Cassarino, 2004; Sandoval & Zuniga, 2016). A central idea in our reflection is that return migration is configured by the cycle of reproduction of capital and the restrictive immigration policies adopted by receiving states when foreign workers become temporarily superfluous in the context of economic contraction in destination countries or when capital abandons “old” sites installing itself in “new” sites looking to increase profits. With Wolf (1982), we claim that, in its process of re-creation, capital differentiates classes from one another. Within this continuous movement of the genesis of new sources of the production of surplus and of renewed recession, not only are property owners differentiated and made to compete for slots among the “winners” and “losers,” the labor force also passes from full employment to underemployment to unemployed. By studying the cycles of migration-return we observe the formation and reconfiguration of these working classes and gender relations.
Our analysis considers the specific circumstances of migration flows, destinations and processes of accumulation in distinct regions. It distinguishes different modalities of displacement and focuses on the household demographic cycle, considering its composition and the migratory status of its members, among other intervening factors in what we could call “the selectivity of staying-returning.” Structural aspects linked to production are just as important to take into account as those aspects related to the reproduction of life conditions of workers and their families.
This theoretical positioning moves us away from neoclassical perspectives that champion the individual, rational decision maker and social network theories that place a heavy burden on the dynamics of personal relationships to explain population movements. It also distances us from transnational scholarship that attempts to overcome the distinction between migration and return by highlighting the fluidity of mobility and the adaptation capacity of “actors.”
Transnationalism often celebrates the “cultural versatility” and the “bifocality” of lives constructed in a community that goes beyond the geopolitical borders of a single nation-state, rejecting the fixity of categories such as “here” and "there” (Basch, Glick Schiller, & Szanton-Blanc, 1994; Vertovec, 2004).
A fair amount of research on return migration has attempted to explain how it relates to development in origin countries (for example, Cassarino, 2004). Scholars highlight how migrants' human and social capital as well as remittances spur development. The emphasis on how migrants will be agents of development in origin countries places a terrible burden on individuals who assumed the costs of migration to look for better opportunities, often in destination countries systematically discriminating against them and deporting them “home.”4 Comparing return of Mexican migrants between 2000 and 2010, Gandini, Lozano-Ascencio, and Gaspar (2015) warned that the more recent return flows are predominantly made up of men of productive and reproductive age who are looking to reinsert in the labor market. Their plans are frustrated as they confront the deterioration of economic conditions in Mexico with respect to the previous decade. We agree with scholars such as Canterbury (2012) and Delgado Wise, Marquez Covarrubias, and Rodríguez Ramirez (2009) that this somber panorama challenges studies celebrating migrants as agents of change through the transfer of their social and human capital. These perspectives hide deep structural causes of migration and the contributions immigrants make to the growth of the economy in destination countries. At the same time, they mask the human and material costs that migration represents for sending countries (Delgado Wise et al., 2009).
We decenter this developmentalist perspective by drawing on literature that poses the possibility of classes permanently excluded from the capitalist system and permanently surplus to capital (Li, 2009; Smith, 2011). Most research on return does not take into account geographic, economic and social factors that permit the successful transfer of human and social capital. Some recent studies consider the obstacles, the lack of local opportunities, the precarity of employment, the administrative traps to enroll children in education and health systems that returnees and their families face, especially children born in the United States or taken there at young ages (Mestries, 2013; Zuniga & Hamann, 2015). These difficulties multiply in the cases of individuals forcibly returned through deportation, a process of dispossession that fractures families through its chaotic and disorienting effects (Boehm, 2016; see also Caldwell, 2019).
Research about return tends not to be longitudinal nor does it consider the intersection of class and gender. It lends little attention to the changes in the conditions of reproduction of workers’ households (see Boehm, 2012, 2016; Rothstein, 2016 for important exceptions). We assume that return is only one milestone in the migratory cycle and does not necessarily mark the end of a cycle, although the migratory flows that we analyzed lost circularity and migrants’ prolonged stays in the United States tended toward settlement. Along with Pascual de Sans (1983, p. 72), we agree that return is not a triumphal moment, or a return to an original state. Rather, we conceive migration-return
Migration, class and gender 7 within the framework of the production of surplus populations, an expression of the processes of proletarization, semi-proletarization and deproletarization (Cook & Binford, 1990) and disposability (Wright, 2006), linked to a new model of accumulation. That is, impoverished subsistence producers are not drawn into waged work to then forever leave behind their subsistence production. There is no unilinear trajectory for the world's surplus populations. Rather, they may be drawn into temporary, seasonal or part-time work and expelled in continuous yet uncertain cycles of varying duration and undetermined frequency (Li, 2009).
The analysis moves beyond methodological nationalism (Glick Schiller, Basch, & Blanc-Szanton, 1992) to consider transnational class formation, a unit of analysis more suitable to the mobile working classes that we examine. We seek to understand how these classes are essential to the reproduction of capitalism in the neoliberal era (Canterbury, 2012). We position ourselves alongside other historical-structural approaches to migration. Instead of the agency of actors, we show the limited parameters within which subjects can act. While this may be viewed as “pessimistic,” our long-term ethnographic research suggests the need to consider seriously and systematically the precarious position of rural Poblanos after almost four decades of neoliberal capitalism.