NEWARK, N.J. – As the United States economic crisis worsens, the money that Mexicans living here send home to their families has declined — reaching record lows over the summer.
But Mexico's government has long known that the day would come when the historic migration North would slow, and the remittance revenue stream — Mexico's No. 2 source of foreign income behind oil exports — would eventually dry up.
Mexico prepared for the scenario with initiatives to solidify ties to its citizens abroad, especially with the U.S.-born children of Mexican immigrants whose allegiance to their homeland weakens with each new generation.
"They've tried to take a much more proactive stance with these communities, with the recognition that they might not be coming back," Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez, the executive director of the Institute of Mexicans Abroad, said in a telephone interview from Mexico City.
Gutierrez's organization, an agency of Mexico's government, was formed in 2003 to institutionalize immigrant relationship efforts that he said began in the early 1980s. Gutierrez said that was when the Mexican government's once-disdainful attitude toward its ex-pats started to change.
The institute supports education and cultural programs for Mexican immigrants and their families in the U.S., including Spanish classes, a program that sends Mexican teachers to U.S. districts with a shortage of bilingual educators, donations of Spanish language materials to U.S. schools and libraries, and literacy initiatives for adult immigrants in the U.S.
Other programs are aimed at the children of immigrants — many of whom may have been to Mexico — that include sponsoring football tournaments, cultural programs, youth exchanges and academic scholarships.
Gutierrez said Mexico's government wants to emphasize to immigrants that it doesn't just view them as revenue streams for the estimated $23 billion they have pumped into the economy yearly over the past few years.
He said that remittances, although important, account for just 3 percent of Mexico's overall gross domestic product.
"For Mexico, migration is a very bad business, even with the remittances," Gutierrez said. "We end up losing a lot more than we gain, and these losses — of production, of workers, of families broken apart, of talent, of skilled labor that could be useful to our national economy — these losses are nowhere near compensated for by the flow of remittances workers abroad send home."
Mexico's government also has expanded the role — and reach — of its 50 U.S.-based consulates, and made legislative changes to allow Mexicans to hold dual-citizenship and vote in elections from abroad.
U.S. economic problems seem to have had an affect on its southern neighbor. Mexican emigration has dropped 42 percent over the last two years, according to a study released Thursday by the National Statistics and Geography Institute.
And Mexicans are sending less money home: Remittances fell 12 percent to $1.9 billion in August, the biggest drop since record-keeping began 12 years ago, according to Mexico's central bank.
"The Mexican government seems to be a lot more worried about us these days," said Herminio Garcia, who runs a travel agency and a Mexican cultural center called Casa Puebla in Passaic, New Jersey.
Garcia said that when he emigrated from Puebla, Mexico, to Passaic in the early 1970s, his contact with Mexico's government was weak. He only went to the consulate if he needed paperwork processed.
Now, the Mexican consulate comes to him, with mobile consular services and traveling diplomats who set up temporary centers across New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to be more accessible to Mexican communities springing up in increasingly remote areas.
Mexican consulates around the country have extended hours or added weekend shifts to accommodate working immigrants, and expanded consular services to include things like health fairs and cultural events.
But Garcia's main concern — one he shares with government officials like Gutierrez — is how to make sure the new American-born generation stays in touch with its Mexican heritage.
"They will definitely lose the connection in three or four generations; like the Irish and Italians," Garcia said. "They'll easily adopt the culture of the country they live in, but I hope it doesn't happen too quickly."