By Adam Goodman | Blood. It took me a second to realize it, but yes: the red liquid sloshing about the pot, splashing over its sides onto the kitchen floor, was blood. Ana was making rellena—a sausage made by stuffing a mixture of pig’s blood, rice, onion, garlic, and spices into a pig intestine, which is then boiled and, finally, fried.
It was January 2013, and I had arrived in San Pedro, a small town in the central Mexican state of Jalisco, less than an hour earlier. Since August 2012 I have lived in Mexico to research and write my dissertation, a transnational history of the deportation of Mexicans from the United States since the 1940s. In addition to documenting the political and institutional history of deportation using archival sources, my project examines the social history of deportation, relying on oral histories to better understand the lived experiences of deportees. That is what brought me to San Pedro (whose name I have changed, along with the names of my hosts, to protect their privacy). During the week I spent there, the oral histories I conducted offered new insights into the history of deportation. But I also learned a lot about the town itself, its history, and why it’s important that the US Congress pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation.
San Pedro is largely an agricultural community, and most people make their living off the land. But many have left. The town, like so many others in traditional migrant-sending states such as Jalisco, Michoacán, and Guanajuato, has a long history of migration to the US that dates back to the 1940s. During the second half of the 20th century, according to residents, it was not uncommon for as many as half of the town’s 3,000 inhabitants to be in the US, the majority of whom found work in agriculture, construction, or in California’s service industry. For much of the year San Pedro’s population skewed heavily female, since so many men were working in the north. It is not an exaggeration to say that the vast majority of men older than 40 have migrated to the US—or at least attempted to do so—on one or more occasions. Most have had encounters with immigration officials.
Today, far fewer make the journey, because of the economic recession in the US, the heightened costs and danger of crossing without authorization, and the improved economic conditions in San Pedro—due, in part, to the remittance dollars that have flowed back over the decades.
Each January many of those who migrated north return to San Pedro for a week to celebrate the town’s annual festival. That’s why Ana and her parents, Fernanda and Alejandro, were there. The day before I arrived they had slaughtered a 200-plus-pound pig for the dozen-or-so family members to enjoy during the week. Hence, the rellena.
Most of the festival celebrations took place in San Pedro’s palm tree-lined central plaza, which, like those in many Mexican towns, abuts a Catholic church. Men sporting cowboy hats and large belt buckles danced with their girlfriends or wives to the ranchera music of a regionally known 12-person band. Each night young men and women circled the plaza in opposite directions, seeking out potential partners. A few blocks north of the plaza, a large multi-purpose tent used for weddings and quinceañeras during the year was turned into a venue for los gallos—the festival’s nightly cockfights. The buoyant atmosphere made it easy to see why so many people would travel so far to come.
During the first decade Fernanda and Alejandro lived in the US, beginning in the late 1970s, they returned to San Pedro only occasionally. Doing so would have meant surreptitiously crossing back into the US with the aid of a coyote. At the time they couldn’t afford it, and returning with small children would have complicated matters further. It was a risky proposition—even though the militarization of the US-Mexico border did not begin until later, in the mid-1990s.
Everything changed in 1986, when they became US citizens thanks to the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) signed by President Ronald Reagan. More than 3 million Mexicans naturalized under IRCA, the last comprehensive immigration reform. Gaining US citizenship had a significant positive impact on Fernanda and Alejandro’s lives. It not only meant that they could stay and work in the United States—it also meant that they could return to Mexico.
Since becoming US citizens Fernanda and Alejandro have returned to San Pedro at least once, and usually twice, each year. As a result, they are able to see Fernanda’s younger sister Gabriela, in addition to other friends and extended family. Gabriela is the only one of the family’s eight siblings to have stayed in San Pedro. All the others live in California. Most of them immigrated decades ago, when they were 13, 14, or 15 years old. Although Gabriela gets to see Fernanda and her four other US-citizen siblings once or twice a year, her brother Tomás and her sister Conchita never naturalized. “It has been 15 years since I last saw my sister Conchita. And my youngest brother, three years,” Gabriela told me as tears wetted her cheeks. “I want to see them.”
The freedom of her naturalized siblings and other San Pedroans to come and go has also made a remarkable difference to the town itself. When Fernanda and Alejandro migrated to the US as teenagers, they were driven by need, and for more than three decades they have labored long hours doing physically taxing jobs on ranches, at wineries, and in the fields. The years of strenuous labor have exerted a physical toll; Fernanda is no longer able to work due to various ailments. Yet their hard work has paid off in the sense that they accumulated savings and property. They own a house in California, and another in San Pedro—to which they recently added a second story.
Theirs is a familiar pattern. Walking around town during the day, it is hard not to be struck by the juxtaposition of cars bearing US license plates parked in the driveways of two-story California-style houses (remodeled using remittance dollars) next to one-room cement-wall houses that lack basic utilities: migration’s impact on material well-being writ literally in bricks and mortar.
This dynamic is not without drawbacks. There is a sense that the Mexican government does not feel the need to provide as much for remittance-dependent communities like San Pedro, which furthers its reliance on migration as a means of economic development. On the other hand, there is ample reason to believe that migration has bolstered the viability of many such towns to sustain their populations in the future. Residents would say San Pedro is better off now than it was in the past.
Today, for the first time in 27 years, the US Congress is considering a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would give the 11 million people living in the country without authorization a chance to become citizens. There are economic arguments to be made for such a move—and others, to be sure, that are made against it. But an even greater imperative lies in the responsibility the US has to the vast number of families who are adversely affected by the current status quo. In recent years, an increasing number of deportations have broken up families who have led productive lives in the United States for decades. According to the Applied Research Center, more than 200,000 parents of US-citizen children were removed from the United States in the last two years alone. It can hardly be in either country’s best interest to fracture families on so vast a scale. Whether or not the proposed reform will pass remains unclear. It is currently being held up by Congressional Republicans, many of whom—along with their constituents—strongly oppose any such legislation.
When people talk about immigration reform and what it would mean, the first thing that comes to my mind isn’t the US economy, the potential long-term political impact, or border security. No. Instead, I think about San Pedro, what a difference IRCA made for Fernanda and Alejandro, and what a new comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship would mean for Gabriela, Tomás, and Conchita. And so many other families.