Our gardener's Texas odyssey and the self-defeating politics of U.S. immigration

It’s been almost a year since our gardener Félix went to work in Texas, along with his brothers Juan and Sergio, all of them undocumented. This was Félix’s fourth trip across the border. He was a teenager the first two times, and was detained and sent back the third time by Mexican cops, who stole all his money. This last trip with his two brothers went smoothly, as illegal border crossings go, and landed him a job in Tyler, a city near Dallas, where he’s been doing roofing. 

The last two times we’ve spoken, Félix sounded unhappy and exhausted. He desperately misses his wife and three kids, with whom he speaks daily, and complains about working outdoors in Texas’ brutally hot summers and equally unpleasant winters. 

Early on too Félix caught Covid and was sick for three or four days, and lost his sense of smell for several weeks, but soldiered on for fear of losing his job. Sick days or health insurance are not part of his employment deal. He plans to return to Mexico early next month but his two brothers say they’ll stay until at least the end of the year. 

In their north-of-the-border sojourns, Félix and his brothers have joined practically every 20- to 30-something Mexican male Stew and I have met since we moved to the ranch 13 years ago.

Another Juan we know has been doing roofing in Kerrville, west of San Antonio, for the past two years. Ulises, our present gardener, worked in landscaping in San Antonio for eight months, before returning to get married. Pascual, a body builder, landed a gig as bouncer at a Mexican cantina in Dallas. His brother Gabriel worked at a recycling center in Dallas for ten years during which he married and had two children with a Puerto Rican woman. They all moved to Mexico six months ago to finish a house Pascual had started a couple of years ago. Lupe, a shy 90-pounder, worked construction in Tyler and returned a year ago; his two brothers are still working there to pay for the house Lupe and their father are building in Sosnabar. Rubén, attempted the crossing but was caught because of the dumb move of using his cell phone, which was detected by U.S. immigration patrols. The wispy Crispín, son of Vicente, the rancher across the road from us, also tried his luck crossing the border but was caught. 

Going to the Other Side to work seems like a rite of passage for young guys in this impoverished nook of Mexico, and the crossings follow a similar script.  

Much like travel agents, coyotes or polleros in Sosnabar, the nearby, hardscrabble town Félix comes from, will, for about $6,000 dollars, make all the arrangements and deliver you to an eager employer somewhere in Texas with immediate job openings. 

In the case of Félix and his brothers the employer advanced the money to pay the coyote, and deducted the amount from their wages in installments. They live in a trailer—air-conditioned, much to Félix’s relief—for which they each pay $50 dollars a week.  

Félix’ experience sounds much like that of my own cousin Julio who came from Cuba alone about ten years ago and hauled four-by-eight-foot drywall panels, another back-breaking job, at construction sites around Austin, along an otherwise all-Mexican work crew. 

To able-bodied, nearly illiterate Mexican guys like Félix and his cohorts, illegal crossings are well worth the risk. Construction work in Tyler pays between $17 and $19 dollars an hour. Work weeks range from 50 to 75 hours, depending on the project.  If you work, say, the minimum 40 hours, you’d be making about $700 weekly—or the inconceivable amount of $14,000 pesos a week.  

Compare that amount to the current minimum wage in Mexico along the U.S. border, of $260 pesos a day or some $1,300 pesos weekly. I can’t imagine, though, employers in Mexico could pay so little and still find any workers. 

The Mexican migrants we’ve met here hardly fit the profile of rapists, drug traffickers or welfare chiselers so often portrayed by some American politicians. 

Edgar: Awaiting his own bedroom

The migrants’ ambitions are far more modest and temporary: To send enough money back home to build or finish a house, or start a small business, perhaps buy a flashy truck. Remittances by Mexican migrants in 2019 came to approximately $39 billion dollars, or approximately three percent of Mexico’s GDP. 

Félix wanted to build a bathroom to his house, which lacked indoor plumbing, and add a bedroom for his ten-year-old son Edgar, who now sleeps with his sisters. He’s accomplished that by remote control, wiring money to his brother Esteban and his brother-in-law who did the work here. His wife Isela very proudly showed me the new bathroom, which has a toilet, sink and shower, a solar water heater and a septic tank nearby. Not an architectural landmark, but perfectly functional. Edgar’s bedroom is still to come. 

As Félix explained, most every newish, freshly painted house in the otherwise bleak Sosnabar was built by migrant remittances. 

During our last two trips to San Antonio, the flipside of this labor and immigration equation was not hard to see: Help Wanted signs abound, particularly for fast food and other service jobs. For lack of personnel, some restaurants have closed their dining rooms and only serve customers in their drive-thru windows. One McDonald’s advertised jobs for $17 dollars an hour. 

Google the phrase “construction jobs in San Antonio” and you’ll get dozens of listings for laborers, offering pay starting at $15 dollars an hour. As of June, the unemployment rate in Texas stood at 4 percent—economists consider a 4 to 5 percent rate as “full employment”—and clearly there are widespread labor shortages in some sectors, especially unskilled jobs.

Felix’ family await his return in September. 

Simple, all-capitalist supply-and-demand equations suggest that it would benefit Texas employers in construction and other sectors to welcome the creation of a well regulated immigrant worker program to satisfy labor needs. That doesn’t mean “open borders” but rather a recognition of economic realities of Texas and other parts of the U.S.

It would also alleviate the underground illegal immigration problem to bring Félix and others like him out in the open, and facilitate their travel back and forth to Mexico depending on their personal needs and those of the labor market in the U.S. Coyotes might be the main losers in this arrangement.

But such market calculations clash with the Trumpian immigrant-demonizing catechism preached and practiced by his acolytes in Texas state government. Gov. Greg Abbott instead prefers political stunts such as deploying the Texas National Guard to the border, supposedly to stop illegal immigration. Most recently—and shamefully—Texas has been busing asylum seekers, sometimes against their will, to more immigrant-friendly cities such as New York or Washington, D.C., in effect treating them like trash to be moved from one’s driveway over to a neighbors’. 

For his part, Félix seems to be making arrangements to come back to his family. When we communicate, “mi familia” comes up in every other sentence. And as any good service provider, the Sosnabar coyotes offer scheduled return trips. He says he’s signed up for the September 3 departure of the 25-plus hour trek from Tyler back home, to his family. 

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