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The selectivity of staying-retutn
In Chapter 3 we alluded to the blurry contours of single male domestic formations in the Durham-Raleigh corridor. The incorporation of women seeking to develop social and work ties and become visible in schools and community and health centers remodeled these formations throughout the years. As Cravey (2003, p. 618) argues, “[t]he novel ways in which [transnational migrants] organize labor within these households ... allow them to cut certain costs and to hold other costs below the norm for nonmigrants living in North Carolina.” Drawing on Marx, Bhattacharya reminds us that “[...] for this peculiar commodity labor-power [...] there enters a historical and moral element in the determination of its value” and that these life standards have no predetermined upper limit, insofar as the needs to be satisfied are historically modeled by the working classes’ struggles (2019, p. 117). In short, under capitalism, the reproduction of working classes is always a necessarily differentiated and differentiating (reproduction, in line with the needs of accumulation. “... [w]orkers produced at lower cost elsewhere,” Cravey reminds us, “provide a substantial savings to employers' contexts such as the United States” (2003, p. 618).
Migratory flows usually provide labor-power originating from places with lower levels of welfare in which the capital from the destination countries has not invested—or has invested little—in their reproduction. In that regard, the countries and regions that become labor reserves subsidize countries and regions that concentrate wealth. Cravey (2003, p. 618) concludes that “it is clear these migrants provide several subsidies to capital: a generational subsidy, a daily or short-term subsidy, and racialized workplace practices and wages.” However, even salary differentials, whereby a Mexican worker in certain sectors of the US economy earns up to ten times more than in Mexico, can be reduced in moments of crisis. Canterbury (2012, p. 47) argues that
[... it...] is the level of capital accumulation in a country and not economic growth in the immediate period, which matters most to people in taking their decision to migrate to that country, even as the country experiences an economic crisis. With a high level of capital accumulation a country will be able to sustain its standard of living relative to other countries despite the fact that it is in economic and financial crises.
Let us recall that in the years before and after the economic recession, as the number of Mexican unauthorized immigrants in the United States decreased,1 unauthorized immigrants from other parts of the world showed slight increases, especially the flows stemming from Central America and Asia (Passel & Cohn, 2018).
How can this apparent paradox be explained? Given the historical levels of accumulation in the United States, net social security in that country is more solid and capable of mitigating unemployment and low salaries of immigrant workers relatively successfully, even in tunes of economic recession (Canterbury, 2012). It is worth noting that the net social security rate is uneven not only between the countries of origin and destination, but also between the different destination regions, a central factor in the selectivity of staying-return. Likewise, there is a marked differentiation between segments of the working classes corresponding to their access to goods and sendees that enable their social reproduction. Race, gender and migratory status condition this access. Reified and essentialized categorizations legitimize and naturalize socially produced differences. This explains why the value of native labor-power is higher than that of racialized and illegalized migrant workers. Both the differences between native workers and immigrants, and between regions (e.g., those existing between the tri-state area of New York and the Nuevo New South) are related to processes of working-class formation in each country, which, in turn, are shaped by aspirations and struggles with capital to limit the degradation of life conditions. All this molds differentiated life standards and habits among the various segments of class (Bhattacharya, 2019; Farris, 2019).
The shared experience of having lived in unequal environments, more or less remote but interconnected, intervenes in the selectivity of staying-return, thus configuring a dual frame of reference (Hahamovitch, 2003). Many first-generation migrant workers endure precarious working conditions partly because they compare salaries and life conditions in the United States with those from their countries of origin. Given the relatively high rate of exchange of the US dollar in the peripheral countries, migrants have the real or illusory feeling that they earn more than they would in their countries of origin. Canterbury refers to this condition as “the tyranny of the exchange rate in the capitalist system” (2012, p. 50). This is how Samuel, a construction worker, explained it to us. Samuel, despite the blow of the economic recession, was still living in the city where he settled in 1994. He fathered four children with Herminia, a fellow Pahuatecan, who had a cleaning job. His testimony illustrates the common reasoning of immigrants based on the dual frame of reference that justifies risking everything to cross the border.
If you go now here and buy a hamburger, it's going to cost you five, six dollars. The drink, one dollar. It’s very hard to understand when you say: “Well, at least here I earn the six dollars of the hamburger in an hour.” Earning the lowest salary, one has made enough money to eat. And in Mexico, when you want to go to McDonald’s, the hamburger costs at least 80 Mexican pesos. When is a peasant going to be able to earn 80 pesos in a day?
(Samuel, Durham, October 2013)
However, it is not only about the obvious income differences and work conditions between both countries. In the explanation of the selectivity of staying-return intervene both structural factors linked to production—salaries and working conditions—and those related to the reproduction of the broader life conditions of workers and their families mediated by marital status, demographic cycle and household composition. Equally fundamental are the state institutions that intervene in these social reproduction circuits and the market asprovider of goods, sendees and care. From this perspective, “we see emerge myriad capillaries of social relations extending between work place, home, schools, hospitals—a wider social whole, sustained and co-produced by human labor in contradictory yet constitutive ways” (Bhattacharya, 2017, p. 74).
The immigrant traveling without spouse or children, similar to the military migration pattern, circulating between both countries with varying degrees of restrictions, may be more prone to return when the dual frame of reference erodes as a result of unemployment or underemployment. The male undocumented migrant traveling alone does not require social assistance nor housing for his dependents (wife and children). He does not get pregnant, nor file for maternity leave or postpartum care and, above all, does not bear citizens. On the contrary, under the model of family migration, women work hard to make themselves visible before the state to provide welfare for their children. In those cases, migrants build social arrangements that underpin settlement and struggle to overcome their condition as illegal aliens, deportable and disposable, which may eventually transform into anti-capitalist struggles (Bhattacharya, 2019).
During our fieldwork in North Carolina, we observed that members of Pahuatecan households with school-age children often settled in that state. They activated various strategies to mitigate their pauperization, tilting the scale toward staying in the United States despite the degradation of work in the years of the recession. Our ethnography confirms the primordial role of women in households linked to the decaying construction sector. In those years, Pahuatecan women, mostly employed in the service sector, continued providing for their homes and, eventually, when their working hours were reduced, worked part-time or became involved in various activities to earn income. These activities included food preparation at home for workers, pawning or selling goods, caring for other women’s children in their neighborhoods, saving among friends and relatives, and catalog sales, to name the most common strategies. The Pahuatecans who remained in Durham belonged to households with children born here and there, with longer residence in the US, stronger roots and greater access to social security. They also tried to protect children born in Mexico, sparing them the risks of a new border crossing in case of re-emigrating to the US.
I think that something that made one endure the storm a little was having family here, in Durham. There were entire families that left. They sent what they earned to Mexico and they kept something to eat and survive here. Those people who left were more a hundred percent there, but when one has children, one is more a hundred percent here. In my case, I have four children who were born here. The four of them go to school and, from people we know or that have left, we hear what the situation is like over there, and we know it’s best that we stay here.
(Samuel, Durham, October 2013)
For people with school-age children, staying in the United States seemed, by far, more convenient. The perception of the superiority of the US education system over the Mexican system corresponds to Mexican’s experience of the high levels of capital accumulation in the United States. Therefore, as Canterbury (2012) argues, these immigrants, convinced that education is a safe path for social mobility, feel strongly committed to their children doing well in school so they may develop successful academic trajectories and abandon the denigrating manual jobs of their parents and grandparents. Of course, only first-generation migrants may draw this comparison, given their experience of living in both countries.
In February 2010, we interviewed 25-year-old Adela in the Nahua community of Atla. When she finished secondary school, Adela moved to Mexico City to work as a domestic and in 2003 she migrated to North Carolina. There she reunited with her boyfriend Enrique, a fellow Atleco, construction worker, who had established in Wilmington years before. In that port city, they bore a daughter. In 2008, Enrique was deported, and the family group returned to Atla. When Adela went back to Mexico after Enrique’s deportation, she was two months pregnant. Her son was born in Pahuatlan’s municipal health office. Adela compared the care she received in Durham with that of Mexico:
Even though we are Mexican, they treat us better there at the hospital or at the clinic. There, when babies are bom, it is much better than here, they give us what they call WIC and Medicare for the children and for the mother, they give us everything. And if one has no money, one can go and ask and they pay the bill. Here [in Atla], when having a baby, one must pay.
(Adela, Atla. July 2010)
These immigrants value not only the quantity and quality of the goods consumed despite their low salaries, but also the relative superiority of the education and health system as resources that make their children’s upbringing possible, compared to the lower investment of the state in their countries of origin. However, for these illegalized populations, the reduced advantages of a depleted welfare state in the destination countries may vanish suddenly. Benefits disappeared abruptly when public spending decreased during the crisis, or migrants were deported. As reported in European countries (Bastia, 2011), after a recession period, both female and male workers are willing to sell their labor-power well under reproduction costs or the standards reached before the crisis.
This extends to the arena of social reproduction given the adverse effects on wellbeing that come with it. While financial capital transfers the cost of the crisis to the users of its services, the state reduced its spending in areas fundamental for households. Despite the recovery of recent years, Julia, to whom we referred above, admitted that life conditions in North Carolina worsened between 2008 and 2013: “We have government clinics, where we only pay the minimum. But now it’s more expensive: US$45 per appointment. Before 2008, the appointment was USS23 and when we arrived [in the mid-1990s] it was USS10” (Julia, Durham, NC, October 2013).
Unlike mixed-status households, with adolescent children and a longer time of residency in Durham, households composed of young couples in the initial stages of the demographic cycle with preschool children born in North Carolina had, after several attempts, to give up the dream of living as a model marital family. In our sample, these households were the most prone to return to Pahuatlan.