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Transnational mothering and “illegality”

Gilda and Beatriz’s struggles to meet the material and emotional needs of their families as transnational mothers represent some of the human costs of the feminization of migration (Donato, Gabaccia, Holdaway, Manalansan, & Pessar, 2006; Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2003; Parrenas, 2001) and the construction of “illegality” through militarized immigration enforcement which restricts migrants’ mobility (De Genova, 2002). As Boehm (2012) argues, despite the fact that “illegality” criminalizes individuals, in practice it “targets groupings of people—families and communities—and young people within these networks” (p. 131). Undocumented transnational mothers’ efforts to ensure a better life for their children are often sidelined due to "illegality.” Gilda's daughter, Irene, and Beatriz’s son—both of whom were placed in the care of their grandparents in Zapotitlan—expressed the difficulties of growing up for years without the affective and emotional support of their mother.

This is not to suggest that we believe that there is an objective “care deficit” if children are cared for by “other mothers.” Yarris (2017) has shown that, in Nicaragua, grandmothers who assume care of grandchildren after the mothers’ migration represent an essential resource for transnational families and reconfigure gendered cultural expectations about motherhood across generations. We agree with Yarris that the popular and academic discussions about the “care deficits” associated with “absent migrant mothers” are harmful for transnational families with alternative caregiving arrangements. However, the assigning of dependent care to biological mothers continued to be a relatively intractable feature of the gender regime that we encountered in Zapotitlan.20 As a result, it was not uncommon for female migrants to feel guilty because they did not live up to the ideals of motherhood, despite the fact that they fulfilled other vital tasks associated with reproducing the family, such as providing economic support.

The experiences of women’s migration and return that we have considered up to this point illustrate the complexity of decision-making processes surrounding mobility. Within this complexity, the household demographic cycle emerges as an important factor in mobility. With the responsibility to care for school-aged children and infants—the latter of which removed the women from the workforce— and the difficult circumstances their husbands faced with unemployment and mental health issues, Carla and Ursula's families’ burdens were relieved by returning to Mexico. Beatriz, on the other hand, saw her family’s future in New York. She believed she would be able to leverage the best opportunities for her US-born daughter and her Mexican-born son in New York. While he was condemned to undocumented status, he would be able to attend better schools and receive better health care in New York than in Zapotitlan. This echoes Carolina's reasons for remaining in New York with her US-born children (see Chapter 4). Carolina’s children’s inheritance would be the education they received in the US, not land or houses in Mexico. On the other hand, with two grown children, Gilda had fewer social reproductive responsibilities than Beatriz, and therefore, was under less pressure to re-migrate to New York.

Remittances and non-migrant households

Up to this point, we have discussed the complex intersection of gender, family and migration. As return migrants, Beatriz, Gilda and Ursula (once her partner re-migrated back to New York) counted on steady remittances from partners or sons to cover the costs of household expenses. Carla’s family lived from the investment they made in Zapotitlan when they arrived from New York: a bus for local transportation between Zapotitlan and Tehuacan driven by her husband. However, what was life like for someone who lived without access to remittances during and after the Great Recession?

The answer to that question was initially the reason that the research design included a “control group” consisting of households with no active migrants within the domestic group during the last five years. However, after several rounds of interviews with these households, we discovered that three of them depended, to a greater or lesser extent, on relatives who remitted money to them on an irregular basis. A fourth household had no access at all to remittances from extended family. It was in the most precarious position in the sample. By drawing on some details from one of the households from this group, we gain insight into some of the impacts of migration and return for non-migrant households as well as how remittances partially sustained social reproduction for non-migrant households.

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