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The return of hard-working immigrants: carefully navigating the perils of “fracaso”

Our interviews with 31 return migrants revealed complex trajectories of migration and return. We identified two men incarcerated and deported after being apprehended in the border area. Another man could not cross after multiple attempts within a month-long period. After his savings ran out, he returned to Zapotitlan. These cases allude to the increasing criminalization of immigration, which spawned a more violent and deadly border environment. Reduced migrant circularity was closely tied to the increased danger and expense of clandestine crossings (see Chapter 2 and Lee, 2018). Five men returned due to health problems that impeded their ability to work. One woman returned because of her partner’s mental health crisis (see below). Four men had their hours cut or were unemployed because of the crisis. One woman returned because her husband lost his job during the crisis (see below). The remaining respondents returned to reunite with their families and/or because they had accomplished their goals. In this chapter, we focus on women’s experience with return in order to highlight the relationships among crisis, social reproduction and gender.

In Chapter 4 we discussed how the powerful trope of the “hard-working immigrant” establishes normative behavior for successful migrants. Those who have sent regular remittances to cover their family’s needs, financed the building of houses, and—for a select few—opened a store or other small business are esteemed by villagers. In these cases, the sacrifice of migration paid off.1 But, in the absence of material proof of hard work, migrants can be shamed for “not doing anything” or “being lost;” the shaming punishes by calling into question migrants’ moral worth as providers for their family members.

Within this discursive and normative context, admitting to family, friends and researchers that one has “failed” can be an uncomfortable, painful and shameful experience. This was even the case with researchers with more than a decade of experience in the community, in the course of which they developed strong rapport with villagers.2 Many individuals did, in fact, open up to us about painful feelings stemming from unmet expectations of migration, abandonment, conflicts with family members, discrimination in the United States and other difficult situations. However, when we asked return migrants if they had lost their job or had their hours cut back during the Great Recession, most assured us that they had not become unemployed or underemployed due to the economic crisis. Many knew other immigrants in New York who lost their job and some remarked that there was an increase in the number of unemployed arriving at workplaces asking for work during the Great Recession, but few included themselves among the affected.

Only four of 31 return migrants we interviewed stated that they came back to Zapotitlan because they lost their jobs or had their hours cut during the crisis.3

Three worked in construction and one in a restaurant.4 A fifth person, based in Los Angeles, had his hours reduced and moved to New York where he worked two restaurant jobs for a couple of years before returning to Zapotitlan. These individuals were considered successful migrants because they had sent regular remittances to their families, built houses and invested in businesses in Zapotitlan with earnings from their jobs in the United States. It is possible that this represents an undercount of the number of people actually affected by labor market contraction because of the sensitive nature of disclosing job loss.

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