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Day 3: Scraping by along the border

March 25, 2017

It’s not just the American dream that draws people north to the U.S.-Mexico border. For more than 20 years, people from all over Mexico have moved to cities like Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Juarez to work in assembly plants known as maquiladoras, which make or assemble everything from shoes and garments to toys and electronics, most of it for export to the United States.

As candidate and president, Donald Trump has railed against U.S. manufacturing jobs moving to Mexico and demanded a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement which gave rise to the maquiladora boom. The future of Mexican manufacturing could very much depend on what that renegotiation looks like.

While workers here depend on these jobs, it’s not an easy life. Folks still struggle to make ends meet on salaries that are a small fraction of what unionized American workers command. And these cities have been hotspots of violence between drug cartels battling over valuable smuggling corridors.

I go to meet Jorge Santiago, 25, in a warehouse at the factory where he works in a bland industrial park in Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas. Santiago moved here as a teenager from the center of the country, in the State of Mexico, along with his parents, who came to find work in the maquiladoras. He tells me he’s now working to support his wife and two children with a third one on the way. Entry-level jobs pay about 600-1,000 pesos (about $30-$50 at the current exchange rate) per week. That’s not enough to cover transportation, housing and other expenses, so most maquiladora workers do about four hours extra each day.

“Here everyone makes it with overtime,” Santiago says. He works as a quality control inspector at a logistics company supporting an LG plant that assembles flat-screen televisions. On the floor, a dozen workers are unpacking and examining slender TVs for flaws.

Santiago’s job pays better than most others he could get. But there are so many people looking for work, employees have little leverage to negotiate better pay or conditions. “Here,” Santiago says, “we are all replaceable.”

Across town the Manzano siblings Sarahi, 16, and Juan, 13, are internal migrants of a different sort. Each year at the end of the growing season their family leaves its farm in the southern state of Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest, to come for a few months. Playing a drum and flute and wearing ornate costumes of leather, beads and feathers, they perform a traditional dance of their Mixtecan people and busk for money at traffic lights.

Asked if they think of crossing into the United States to look for work, Sarahi says no: “Right now it’s really difficult. They’re throwing out a lot of immigrants.”

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