"I’ve come up with my own numbers. And I will stand by these numbers. The annual gross cost to U.S. taxpayers to provide schooling, hospitalization, and whatever plethoric benefits are out there for the 30 million illegal aliens is approximately $400 billion per year funded by bona fide U.S. taxpayers. That’s $400 billion per year and going up."
— Jim Gilchrist, co-founder, the Minuteman Project, quoted in David Horowitz’s Frontpagemag.com
"They now live in America, so it’s time for all nationalities to learn to live like Americans. This means learn how to speak English; learn how to have good hygiene; learn how to use appliances in their homes correctly. And then the pride will come to them."
— A woman in Herndon, Virginia speaking at a public meeting against a proposed day-labor center, as recorded by NPR.
"The labor’s very cheap. It’s the materials that get expensive."
— A US retiree with a new home under construction near Lake Chapala, Mexico
Hysterical claims like Gilchrist’s above are a staple of the anti-immigrant movement. But after spending a couple of weeks in the gringo retirement belt along Mexico’s largest lake, I’m ready to argue that most of the standard anti-Mexican-immigration arguments — or mirror images of them — can be applied just as well to the small but swelling tide of immigration by US and Canadian citizens into Mexico.
Around 50,000 or so US citizens reside in the Lake Chapala – Guadalajara area. They come to live, in the mangled syntax of an AARP Magazine article on retirement in Mexico, "La Vida Cheapo". Many are enjoying something approximating the standard of living they always had in, say, Illinois or California, but on a much lower budget. Others are spending at the same or an increased rate, but living the life they never could have had back home.
In either case, the expatriate community is plopping down its characteristically massive ecological footprint alongside Lake Chapala, and letting the locals pay the tab.
Bigfoot spotted in Mexico
The Oakland-based think tank Redefining Progress regularly compiles the per-capita resource consumption, waste generation, and ecosystem destruction of people in each country of the world, and converts it all into a single measure of land area – an ecological ‘footprint’. By their reckoning, that footprint for the average human being worldwide is a little over 5 acres — an unsustainable burden over the long term. Mexico’s per capita footprint is slightly above the world average, at a little over 6 acres; in the United States, it’s almost 25.
Despite needing little or no air conditioning or heating in Lake Chapala’s delightful climate, immigrants from up north appear to be having a per-person ecological impact approaching that of their stay-at-home compatriots, which, by Redefining Progress’ figures, is as heavy as that of about 4 average Mexicans.
A flood of immigrants with a high-consumption lifestyle flocking to its shores is the last thing that the already ecologically devastated lake needs. According to NASA, water volume has dropped perhaps 75% from its historic level, with two-thirds of that loss coming since 1986. Enough dry ground has been laid bare to accomodate the entire city of Washington, DC. And because of pollution, to quote the AARP article, "The lake is now a view, nothing more." Even the lake’s aesthetic appeal is waning, choked as it is with water hyacinth.
Lake Chapala would be threatened whether or not the gringos had shown up, but piling even more big houses onto the slopes above the north shore, with their acres of pavement, and swimming pools (always filled despite growing water shortages), and septic systems that wouldn’t pass code in the US, and bright green, well-watered, monocultural lawns, and heavy monthly spraying for insects, spiders, and scorpions, and washers and dryers running full blast, and no clothes lines in sight, despite the bright sun and low humidity (if there’s one thing we gringos know how to do, it’s "use appliances in our homes correctly"!), it’s kind of hard to argue that immigration is having a positive impact around the lake.
And that’s just in one small region. Each winter finds at least 700,000 North Americans residing in Mexico, and many of them stay year-round.
Another kind of immigrant freeloader
Back here in the US, battles over Mexican immigration are breaking out all along the political spectrum. All factions point to extensive cost-benefit analyses to support their case. Few if any of those tallies take into account the huge subsidy immigrants provide to business by working long, hard days for cut-rate paychecks. And the folks who don’t emigrate, who stay back to manufacture goods for export to the States at even lower wages, are chipping in with their own subsidy.
Now, with the golden years looking less and less economically secure for many Americans, our economy is turning to Mexican working people once again, as we outsource the support structure for an increasing number of retirees. For example:
* The Mexican highway system is excellent these days; some of the more hardy immigrants claim they can drive the 700 or so miles from the border to Chapala in a single, if long, day. And gas sells at familiar prices.
* Flush with cash from the sale of a house in the States, immigrants can either buy a bigger, better one or have a dream home virtually hand-built. A favorite topic of cafe conversation is the high skill, the lack of need for power tools, and above all, the low cost, of the local construction workers. One hears complaints that housing costs have increased since the 2004 publication of the AARP article (which, despite the lake’s condition, gave the area a good plug), and prices are expected to climb further if, as expected, Time magazine runs a piece on the Lake Chapala scene sometime this year.
* More than anything else, those who are immigrating from the US are fleeing our nation’s chaotic, outrageously costly, and often incompetent medical and insurance systems. In the Guadalajara-Chapala area, they can obtain excellent health care at a fraction of the cost, thanks largely to low Mexican salaries and wages. And health insurance is cheap, too.
* Whether or not an immigrant couple could afford domestic workers back in the States, they can hire as many as they want in Mexico — with no worries about their employees’ immigration status and no Social Security tax to pay!
* New immigrants can choose between gated and ungated communities.
* Imported food and other goods are obtainable around the lake area, but at a price that doesn’t appeal to most retirees. Thus, a regular part of the immigrants’ monthly or weekly routine is a 20-mile run up Highway 23 to Wal-Mart, Sam’s, Home Depot, and Costco in Guadalajara. The merchandise is from all over, the wages — such as they are — go to the local employees, but most of the wealth goes abroad to the stores’ shareholders.
* Nothing astonishes immigrants so much as the low taxes. Everyone talks about them; I was told of annual property tax figures ranging from $40 to $150, for houses valued in the low to mid six figures. No worries about sales taxes, either. But if there’s any grumbling by the locals about immigrant freeloaders, I didn’t hear it.
A real immigration debate?
I realize that the spectacle of American expatriates living off the lean of the land is nothing new. I lived in India off and on between 1980 and 2000, and there the exploitation of cheap labor by local and foreign elites was truly extraordinary. But if we’re going to debate the immigration "crisis" in this country, let’s take seriously the impact of American emigration as well.
If we wave aside the dust and fog of the current debate, what we see all around us in the US are immigrants from Mexico and other nations working very hard in tough jobs for low pay, making do with limited resources. What Mexicans see in places like Lake Chapala are immigrants who do little or no work but whose upkeep requires vast amounts of resources.
But, turning over what they see as their ace, anti-immigration crusaders will point out that the gringos are down there legally. These Mexicans are up here illegally! The question to ask, though, is, Why? What’s the source of those labels, "legal" and "illegal"? They arise, of course, from that deep divide in power and wealth that occurs at the Rio Grande. Add to that our nation’s determination to reserve a fourth of the planet’s resources for our own 4.5% of its population while maintaining access to the cheapest possible labor for any particular job that needs to be done.
If the sample I encountered was representative, the expatriates in Mexico don’t tend to be of the Ugly American variety. Most of those I met value open-mindedness and cultural sensitivity, and many seem delighted to be no longer living in territory under the direct control of the Bush regime (Well, there was that one Texas couple with a signed picture of George W. on their mantle … and the perhaps overly sensitive columnist for the English-language Lake Chapala Review who defends the Aztec practice of human sacrifice …)
Most every immigrant I met down around Lake Chapala was pleasant and friendly and well-intentioned. As the face of our country abroad, they were several cuts above some of the dubious types who fan out from the United States and across the borders of other nations every year, whether invited or uninvited — like troops in robo-warrior gear, or economic hit men, or covert operatives, or Benny Hinn-style megavangelists, or puking students on spring break, or corporate buyers seeking out the cheapest sweatshop goods. But, however good our intentions, whether we like it or not, when we Americans head for economically or ecologically impoverished parts of the world we usually end up embodying what our nation has become – a bottomless resource sink.
STAN COX is a plant breeder and writer in Salina, Kansas. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.