Global Policy Forum

On the Border of Controversy


Maquiladoras Praised, Criticized for Role in U.S. Visa Process

By Peter Fritsch and Joel Millman

Houston Chronicle
July 22, 2001

Martina Chavez walks across the border to a blood center here and opens her veins for money. Her blood sales and an occasional gig cleaning homes make her the family's biggest breadwinner, eclipsing the $ 280 a month her husband earns working full-time in a Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. factory back in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Chavez says she is grateful to Delphi for her ability to earn money in the United States and make ends meet. It was the company that helped her obtain the special visa for her trips here.

Like many other Mexicans in the area, Chavez's family benefits from an unusual arrangement under which the United States government effectively delegates responsibility for administering the special visas to foreign-owned factories in Mexico. American officials retain ultimate authority to grant or deny the visas at United States consulates. But factory managers help do the initial screening of applicants, and they give preference to loyal employees and their dependents.

The visa allows a Mexican to come to the United States to shop and visit family - but only for three days at a time and within 25 miles of the border. The document, good for 10 years, doesn't permit its holder to work in the United States, although it is known on both sides that many Mexicans, such as Chavez (her maiden name), do just that. The visas are highly sought after. In Juarez, as many as 3,000 are issued each week with the involvement of foreign-owned factories.

At a time when the Bush administration is actively looking at ways to legalize the status of about three million Mexicans living illegally in the United States, the special border-visa system serves a number of interests. Governments on both sides want to raise Mexican incomes, reduce unlawful border-crossing into the United States generally and diminish the chances Mexican illegal aliens will die in the scorching Arizona desert or swift currents of the Rio Grande. By favoring employees and their families, the factories help assure that visas go to Mexicans who are more likely to return home because they have economic ties there.

For the foreign-owned Mexican factories, or maquiladoras, the visas have become a cost-free perk to help retain employees. Many Mexicans who obtain visas with the help of maquiladoras praise the arrangement, but critics say the visas benefit factory owners eager not only to avoid turnover but also to keep a lid on wages and worker demands.

The current border-visa policy began taking shape in 1999, when the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service ceded the monumental task of issuing border visas to United States consulates in six Mexican border cities. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994, employment in maquiladoras has doubled to more than 1.2 million as Mexicans have poured into the border area.

"We want people documented so they can cross in a legal, safe mr," says Lawrence J. Kay, the State Department official who runs the Juarez consulate's visa office. After issuing just 40,000 visas in 1997, Kay's staff will dispense nearly 400,000 this year. Only the United States consulates in Seoul, South Korea, and Mexico City issue more visas per year.

Also about two years ago, Congress told the INS to replace more than five million paper border visas issued since the 1950s with more tamper-proof documents known as "laser visas." In addition to a photo, the new visas bear a digital fingerprint that can be machine-scd. More than two million of the high-tech cards are already in circulation, and the number is climbing quickly.

Daunted by the task of replacing the old documents and issuing new ones, the border consulates began allowing maquiladoras to do a lot of the paperwork and applicant vetting. That process typically starts on the shop floor, where supervisors keep track of the attendance and productivity of factory hands to determine who merits a trip to a United States consulate. Maquiladoras especially favor workers who enroll in after-hours training courses, join a company credit union or add their names to the waiting list for factory-sponsored housing.

Maquiladora officials say visa sponsorship is a job benefit meant to build allegiance - much like free bus transportation and cafeteria meals - and isn't intended to encourage illegal employment in the United States

"Eighty percent of our turnover occurs with employees who have been with us for six months or less," says Enrique Alvelais, head of human resources for some 16,000 maquiladora workers employed by Thomson Consumer Electronics Co., based in Indianapolis. The unit of Thomson SA of France sponsors dozens of employees for laser visas each week, so long as they have completed a year with the company. The policy, Alvelais says, "has been good for our retention."

But that's not all the visas are good for. Those using their visas to earn a casual income in the United States effectively subsidize the payrolls of companies employing their relatives in maquiladoras, which offer assembly-line workers an average wage of about $ 60 a week. Dangling the prospect of a visa before poor laborers buys the maquiladora a more docile work force, critics say.

"You think someone will complain about pay or work conditions if he thinks a border pass to the United States hangs in the balance?" asks Cecilia Espinosa, a soft-spoken former maquiladora employee who volunteers with a church-based outreach group for Juarez workers.

"It keeps us quiet," adds Mireya Mesa, 24, who makes parts for Whirlpool dryers as an employee of Celmex SA, a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Emerson.

Alicia Roman, a human-resources official at Celmex, denies the company's participation in the visa program is part of an effort to keep wages down. Echoing comments by other factory officials, she says, "We help (employees) with their papers, that's all." Celmex workers are taken to the consulate no more than four times a year, usually in groups of 50 or fewer, she adds.

Holding a steady maquiladora job makes an applicant almost certain to get a visa. American consular officials say they are more confident that maquiladora workers and their relatives will return to Mexico after their United States visit. That's because maquiladoras pay more than almost any other employers on the Mexican side and provide applicants with known ties to Mexico.

American enthusiasm for maquiladora-backed applicants is evident in visa-approval rates. For Mexicans trying to get a laser visa without maquiladora help, the rejection rate is 30 percent - typically because applicants lack evidence of a fixed address, such as a pay stub or utility bill. By contrast, the rejection rate for first-time applicants sponsored by one of the border factories is "practically nil," says Kay, the consular official.

United States officials concede that some Mexicans work in a maquiladora long enough only to get a laser visa and then disappear into the vast United States underground economy. But the officials argue that some seepage from the huge pool of legal border crossings - 320 million last year - is insignificant when balanced against the thousands of border residents who use their visas and remain in their home country.

Those caught violating the terms of their laser visas are subject to being sent back to Mexico, having their visas revoked and being put on a 10-year blacklist. The maquiladoras have no legal responsibility for what workers, their spouses or children do with laser visas.

No one knows the precise number of Mexicans who work in the United States while visiting on laser visas. But there is little doubt their ranks are swelling. Of the more than 40,000 Mexican workers commuting daily to jobs in San Diego, at least 4,000 are entering with laser visas, according to researchers at Tijuana's Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

In El Paso, laser-visa laborers pick onions, babysit, wash cars and sell blood - usually off the books. Chavez, the housekeeper and blood supplier, got her laser visa about a year ago. Once her husband completed a year of making electrical car cables for Delphi, the company filled out the visa paperwork for both of them, helped them prepare a $ 90 money order for their visa fees (the couple provided the money), scheduled an appointment with the United States consulate and shuttled them to their consular interview with a busload of other Delphi workers.

"It was easy," thanks to Delphi, says Chavez, who came to Juarez with her husband two years ago from the impoverished north-central state of Durango.

She pays a 25-cent pedestrian toll and flashes her new border visa at a United States immigration checkpoint in El Paso. From there, she walks to the blood center, part of a chain owned by a unit of Aventis SA, a French biotechnology company. The center is located just blocks from the bridge separating the United States from her home in Juarez. She picks up cash for her blood, an activity the INS doesn't consider a violation of the laser visa. But her occasional house-cleaning clearly does break the law.

Across town, Laura Gomez earns $ 65 for cleaning the home of El Paso's Cox family each week - a crucial dividend of the laser visa she obtained because her husband works at a Thomson-owned plant. Gomez, 37, says she understands that her work is illegal, but she thinks the infraction is made less serious by her practice of spending her wages in El Paso on things such as fresh milk and produce. These are "extras," she says, that are hard to buy in the dusty Juarez barrio where she and her husband live with their three children.

"I don't know if what she does is illegal," says her employer, Phillip Cox. He has never asked Gomez about her work status, he says. "All I know is she comes every Thursday and does a great job."

The maquiladora-powered visa machine is highly organized. In Kay's glass-walled consular office in Juarez, a large white formica panel is divided into a grid. Slots show when each of some 50 assembly plants are scheduled to bring in groups of applicants during the week. Delphi, which has 18 plants in Ciudad Juarez, brings in about 120 workers a week.

Dressed in neat, casual clothes, as many as six applicants typically crowd into an inspector's cubicle for an "interview," which seldom consists of more than typing each applicant's data into a computer. Later, the information is cross-checked against United States law-enforcement records to eliminate those who have run afoul of the INS. Photos are taken for applicants' identification cards, and each applicant submits to a fingerprint scan. The whole process takes less than 15 minutes per person.

But getting approved for a visa by the company can take a little longer.

Miguel Angel Giron, 22, has worked for Delphi for the past six months, making $ 275 a month. He shares a concrete hovel with his aunt, uncle and four cousins. "I asked my boss about my laser visa, and he said I could get it at the end of this year," Giron says. "Once I get it, I'm going home to see my mom, and then it's over the border and see you later."

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.