January 26, 2014 | Updated: January 26, 2014 10:23pm
SAN ANTONIO — When Presidents Barack Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto meet in Toluca next month for a North American summit, among the accords signed will be a new academic exchange program between Mexico and the United States. Proyecto Cien Mil, or Project 100,000, will bring that many Mexican university students to the United States by 2018.
The United States will reciprocate by sending 50,000 students to Mexican universities within that same time frame.
In a Mexican newspaper report, U.S. and Mexican officials touted the exchange program as a way for the U.S.-Mexican region (and it's considered a region to the rest of the world) to raise its global competitiveness.
Hand in hand with that initiative, findings were released of a study by the Mexico City- and San Antonio-based Mexicans and Americans Thinking Together, or MATT. Conducted with Southern Methodist University and at the Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Center, “The U.S. Mexico Cycle: The End of an Era” found that assumptions about Mexican return migration aren't altogether correct.
Experts have thought Mexican immigrants return to their country — 1.4 million between 2005 and 2010 and more since then — because of deportation, the unavailability of U.S. jobs and anti-immigrant legislation.
All those reasons still pay a role in migration back to Mexico, but the study, conducted in Jalisco with 600 returning immigrants, found the major reason for leaving the United States was that they never intended to stay permanently.
“Eighty-nine percent chose to return to Mexico on their own, despite the general belief that most returned through deportation,” the study found.
The top reason for returning was family concerns. More than half reported they wouldn't return, and 30 percent said they would. Of those, more than 90 percent said they would seek to immigrate legally.
“One of the things that impressed me the most was that 20 percent who went back, went back with money and invested in a business,” said Aracely Garcia-Granados, MATT executive director. “In five years, 75 percent of those 20 percent were still in business.”
MATT's Yo Soy Mexico project, which matches returning immigrants with job, education and investment opportunities, led to the study.
Garcia-Granados said MATT is conducting two other studies in the states of Hidalgo and Coahuila, and similar figures are surfacing. In Hidalgo, 72 percent of returning immigrants said family was the chief motivator for going back. In Coahuila, it was 63 percent.
“They wanted to take care of their parents,” Garcia-Granados said. “Their mother went back, and the (adult) children wanted to go back, too.”
The third reason they left was economy or job-related, at about 11 percent. An anti-immigrant environment came in at 1.7 percent. The study reveals a trend. “The new reality is that people are going and aren't coming back,” she said.
In many ways, Proyecto Cien Mil and the MATT study are engaged in producing the same valuable commodity: understanding. So much of what passes for that in the United States about Mexico is based on total misunderstanding, especially in what Mexican immigrants provide to the U.S. economy. That will come into focus if, at some point, fewer of them immigrate, and if possibly more, less-familiar immigrant workers arrive at U.S. ports.
Hosting 100,000 Mexican university students in the United States and sending 50,000 U.S. students to Mexico will give all of them invaluable experiences in the short-term. In the longer view, they'll help both countries in the North American region better understand one another. Perhaps that can lead to better public policy.
“Our goal is to create a prosperous region and start dealing with one another binationally,” Garcia-Granados said. “We believe in creating a more bicultural region. Being bilingual isn't as important.”
What is important, she added, “is for Mexico to better understand the United States and the United States to better understand Mexico.
MATT.org press release on new study
MATT's new study on Mexican return migration http://www.expressnews.com/news/us-world/border-mexico/article/Survey-looks-at-reasons-for-return-immigration-5143374.php | Survey looks at reasons for return immigration
Excelsior story about academic exchange program (in Spanish)
Obama to visit Mexico in February for North American summit