Last month, the New York Times published this article by Damien Cave. In it, Cave explores the recent decline in illegal immigration to the US from Mexico, which is currently the lowest it’s been since the 1950s. Many Mexicans living in the States have started returning (of their own volition) to their native country. This fact, combined with the sharp decline in illegal traffic to the US, indicates that net traffic may even be negative.
Cave attributes the phenomenon to the fact that those living in Mexico now have access to “better lives” than ever before. But what constitutes this “better life”? The term is a general one—fittingly so. The idea of a “better life” simplifies development theory into what we all know and understand. In Mexico, that change has occurred over the past half-century. The nation has metamorphosed into a more prosperous and economically stable country. Today, Mexican people enjoy rapidly developing educational opportunities, increases in per capita GDP, and expanding job markets. Overlook the drug wars (which are, depending on who you talk to, somewhat contained), and Mexico is a pretty great place to be at the moment.
I like to imagine that Guatemala may be on the same path as Mexico—just a few decades behind. Like many of the world’s struggling countries, Guatemala suffers from a combination of illiteracy and unemployment that plagued Mexico just a few decades ago. And while economic and educational opportunities have contributed to Mexico’s progress, Cave identifies an important cultural change as well: declining birth rates. Smaller families don’t experience the financial burden that comes with feeding ten (or more) children. This is a notoriously difficult issue in Guatemala, where conservative values dominate indigenous culture, regardless of religious affiliation. This weekend I spoke with a cab driver in Guatemala City who attributed much of his country’s current struggles to the fact that, outside the city, discussing sexual health or family planning was tantamount to un pecado: a sin.
And as large families divide farmable land among multiple children (in accordance with traditional inheritance practices), new generations have less and less resources with which to feed their children. A family of twelve may be forced to feed itself using only a fifth of the land with which the previous generation accomplished the same task. Recent government programs have attempted to address the issue by distributing bolsas, bags of food staples like eggs and beans, to families in need. But these programs fluctuate as administrations change, and food often does not end up in the mouths of the children who struggle most to fend off chronic malnutrition. The alternative? Seek income elsewhere. Many Guatemalans do so by cooperating with drug cartels. Or they immigrate to the United States.
As Americans, we often ignore the fact that immigration is a global, international issue. We tend to isolate the issue from the other social and economic issues in other nations to which it is inextricably tied. But if Cave’s analysis of the transformation in Mexico is correct, then immigration is part of a broader picture: the multifaceted process by which struggling nations develop. Cave’s article provides a macro example of what Manna Project’s small-scale models are based on: holistic development. No one change in a culture or economy can catapult a community—or a nation—into prosperity.