Immigration detour: A Mexican tale

Stephen Baker

Long before I'd heard the word Internet, much less blog, I worked as bureau chief in Mexico City for BusinessWeek. Before that I covered the border in El Paso. I've been tempted to blog about immigration, but have resisted, since it's not the theme of this blog. But since it's the weekend, I'll share a story I heard last week from a Mexican cook in Santa Cruz, Calif.

On Thursday I walked into a hole-in-the-wall cafe looking for huevos rancheros. It was just the cook and me, so while he worked on the eggs he told me about his hometown, El Ebano.

In 1901, an American oilman drilled a well in El Ebano, near the Gulf of Mexico in the state of San Luis Potosi. He hit black gold. It was the first find in Mexico, and it marked the birth of the industry there. For the next 37 years, El Ebano was a hotbed of opportunity. Foreigners poured into the town from the U.S., Europe, China. (You might remember that the desperados in the book and movie, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, were Depression-era migrants looking for work south of the border.)

In 1938, Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized the Mexican oil industry, expropriating foreign holdings. For the next five decades, from this cook's perspective, it was the golden age at Ebano. There was lots of work for Mexicans, and they had a powerful (if corrupt) union, which had a big stake in the government. This set-up, for all its virtues, was inefficient. And in 1991 the Mexican government opened certain sectors of the industry to foreign investment.

"Americans arrived with their computers," the cook told me. They automated processes and dismissed loads of workers. U.S. technologists, from his point of view, displaced Mexican workers. Out of work, he crossed the border into California and went where the money was, just down the road from Silicon Valley.

This story doesn't come with a policy prescription for immigration. But it illustrates the ebb and flow between two countries. The three fundamentals--capital, technology and labor--have long criss-crossed the border, often as if it didn't exist.