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Commentary: You can go home again

SAN DIEGO -- In the past, I've advised undocumented immigrants from Mexico to learn English, become legal, value education, refuse handouts, resist entitlement, and culturally assimilate. Now, given a disturbing trend tied to the wobbly U.S. economy -- one that turns the immigration equation upside down -- I have one more piece of advice: Consider going home.

Let me explain. It's not because they shouldn't be here in the first place. That's a given. Regular readers know that I don't support illegal immigration. In fact, I support speedy deportations, workplace raids, and tighter borders. I also support comprehensive immigration reform that gives illegal immigrants already here a pathway to earned legal status. There's no contradiction. You can't have conditional reform without enforcement. How would you handle those who didn't meet the conditions?

But don't expect me to sign on to the idealistic rhetoric from immigration restrictionists who think that all people in the country illegally should voluntarily return to where they came from because it's the right thing to do. Why should they? They have accomplices after all -- they came here because employers were willing to hire them. I would never be so naive as to make the argument that illegal immigrants should self-deport for moral reasons -- anymore than I would suggest employers turn themselves in to get right with the law.

Yet, given recent events, I am willing to contemplate a completely different argument -- that illegal immigrants should self-deport because of family reasons or, more precisely, because of family responsibility. They should leave not to please Americans but to alleviate some of the pressure that has come to weigh on relatives back home. After all, in large part, Mexican migration is an expression of family values. The main reason that most Mexicans are here in the first place isn't for freedom or a fresh start, but simply to make enough money to send home to their relatives so that their lives in Mexico might be a little easier.

And guess what's happening now? According to The New York Times, there's a kind of reverse remittance going on where, instead of illegal immigrants sending money to Mexico, more and more poor people in Mexico are scraping together whatever they can to send funds to unemployed sons and daughters in the United States.

This trend sounds counterintuitive but it makes perfect sense in human terms. The parents quoted in the article want to do what most parents do when their kids are struggling financially -- send money, at least enough for them to get a bite to eat. It doesn't matter whether those kids are under the same roof or 1,000 miles to the north.

But, as the article points out, the trouble is that most Mexicans are not in a position to be anyone's fairy Godmother. In many Mexican villages, all you find are older people -- many of them now working harder to earn a few extra pesos to send to children in the United States. This is, at best, a temporary solution. Folks on both sides of the border are treading water and trying to buy enough time for the U.S. economy to bounce back and for the jobs to return. At that point, they hope things will go back to the way they used to be -- money flowing south.

But until that happens, why remain here? For pride? For hubris? To avoid accepting failure? For that, they're allowing their elderly parents -- many of whom have worked their entire lives -- to continue to work long hours, perhaps putting their own health in jeopardy? What if something happens to them in the process? It's not worth it. Life is short enough as it is.

If the immigrants who are in the United States can't afford to live here, then remaining is a luxury they also can't afford. They might not be better off at home. But their families might be. If so, time to go.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is rnavarrette@wctrib.com.

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