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Reviewed by:
  • The World of Mexican Migrants: The Rock and the Hard Place
  • Anthony J. Cortese
The World of Mexican Migrants: The Rock and the Hard Place . By Judith Adler Hellman. New York: The New Press, 2008. Pp. xxiv, 256. Map. Notes. Glossary. Suggested Readings. $29.95 cloth.

“Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.”

—Exodus, 22:21

There are approximately 12 million undocumented migrants in the United States. At least half of them come from Mexico. Mexican migration to the United States increased sharply with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—a trilateral trade bloc in North America created by the governments of the United States, Mexico, and Canada, that came into effect on January 1, 1994—as well as other political and economic changes in Mexico during that decade. NAFTA was partially responsible for pushing down the incomes of poor Mexican corn farmers, although this pattern was evident since at least the early 1980s. Although NAFTA certainly helped Mexican industry, it did not provide enough jobs for young adults entering the job market for the first time or poor peasant farmers from villages who moved to cities because they were no longer able to make a living growing corn and other crops. Thus, the exodus.

Hellman puts a vivid face—actually many faces—on immigration through five years of in-depth interviews with Mexican migrants in New York City, Los Angeles, and some of the emigrating villages in Mexico. She uses the phrase “the rock and the hard place” in the subtitle to denote the extremely difficult, often perilous, maddening, and desperate situations and experiences that push people out of Mexico (the rock), and bring them to the foreign soil of the United States (the hard place). There is also extensive focus on the exhausting, dangerous, and expensive journey across the Rio Grande River along the United States-Mexico border through treacherous desert to the new domicile for migrants.

There are five groups of players in this borderlands drama: the migrants who try to cross illegally; the border patrol (migra) whose job it is to try to catch and deport them; the Minutemen—activists who believe that the U.S. government is not doing enough to stop illegal immigration and who, in April, 2005, began monitoring the United States borders’ (both Mexican and Canadian) flow of illegal immigrants (their name draws from militiamen who fought in the American Revolution); the humanitarian workers who supply migrants with water, food, fresh socks, and emergency medical care; and the ranchers who own much of the land where these activities take place.

There is an immediate transition for migrants who were on one day members of the majority in their own homeland, and on the next day, powerless minorities in a strange land with a vastly different culture and language. Hellman clearly shows how Mexican migrants are caught between their homeland and their new destination. [End Page 616] There is often plenty of soul-searching and meticulous calculation that determine whether a migrant remains in the United States to make a permanent home or return to their beloved homeland.

Hellman aptly illustrates the contradictions and latent consequences of our current immigration policy and corresponding ideologies. Moreover, she makes a strong case for an open-border policy: “Society as a whole suffers when those without documents are afraid to report a crime to police or cooperate as witnesses or enroll their children in pubic school. The broader community suffers if undocumented people are afraid to go to a public health-care facility although they may be carriers of contagious disease or suffer from a health problem that may impact the well-being of others” (p. xxii). Finally, Hellman cites evidence that an open-border is wanted by a clear majority of United States citizens.

This excellent volume is a must read for any policy-maker, Latin or Mexican American scholar or student, political scientist, ethicist, ethnic studies scholar, sociologist, economist, contemporary historian, theologian, anthropologist, psychologist, or anyone interested in social justice who is concerned with the significant and complex issue of Mexican migration to the United States. Hellman offers a humanistic voice to and a...


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