You might say this is the road that migrants built.
From the Mexico-Guadalajara Highway between Zamora and Tangancicuaro, a newly paved access road heads east into the village of Gomez Farias.The $100,000, four-kilometer road was not paved by the government of Mexico or the state of Michoacan. It was built and paid for by the town's 7,000 residents. They could afford such an ambitious project because many of the men of Gomez Farias work as migrant laborers in California.
The money they send back has created some odd contradictions in the town. The paved access road comes into town, but all the village streets are rutted dirt tracks. Many of the houses look new and prosperous; several even sport satellite dishes. But many stand empty for much of the year.
It's obvious that there is money in this village, but almost no commerce is visible - the dollars get spent in larger regional cities where the people go to shop. Gomez Farias itself has a depressed, abandoned feel.
Gomez Farias is what is known in the parlance of social scientists as a "sending community," one of the Mexican towns that, for reasons of cultural tradition as well as economic aspiration, sends large numbers of undocumented migrants to the United States while many other, poorer communities do not.
Every January and February, the men of Gomez Farias leave for work on northern California farms to earn money to improve their or their families' standard of living, and every November or December they come back. There's a certain irony in this, since the part of Mexico where they live produces large quantities of strawberries and other produce for export to California and elsewhere.
While the men are gone, Gomez Farias is normally quiet. But this year it is almost deserted.
The first week in May, Gustavo Lopez Castro, a sociologist at the Colegio de Michoacan, and researchers from the University of California at San Diego did a town census and found 47 percent of the houses empty. And many other families had at least one member away.
"I have never encountered so many empty houses in Gomez Farias - ever," said Lopez, who has been studying the town and its migration patterns since 1984.
The reason, he said, appears to be the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, better known as the Simpson-Rodino law. Although the law was publicized as a measure to stem the flow of undocumented aliens to the United States, it has had the opposite effect on Gomez Farias. Many more people migrated this year than in previous years.
Because the law allows for various types of temporary residency for agricultural workers as well as the possibility of permanent residency, many people from Gomez Farias and other area communities have headed north this year to see if they can arrange their papers, Lopez said.
The law has had contradictory effects in some cases. In Ucacuaro, another sending community nearby, many more people went to California this year because of the possibility of obtaining a temporary permit, but so many other Mexicans were doing the same thing that there weren't enough jobs to go around, and some came home early, said residents.
The law has had several unexpected effects, found Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego. In a paper presented to The Council on Foundations in Los Angeles, he reported that the law's provision for sanctions against employers who hire undocumented workers has made it harder for migrants to find regular jobs, so many are relying on casual day-labor jobs.
But this has not deterred them from going, he found. Instead of reducing the migrant flow, the law, with its requirements for showing documents to new employers, has made many of those who have jobs hang onto them and stay longer than normal in the States and has given them incentives to bring their families.
"The traditional `shuttle' migration - for periods of six to 18 months of work in the United States - has become a luxury that most Mexicans can no longer afford," he reported.
Lopez said the law has made men from Gomez Farias extend their stays in the United States. If the average length of stay was eight months before, it's probably 11 months now, he said. He also has noticed a larger number of women from the village going this year, but he hasn't done enough research to be able to interpret that yet.
Lopez stressed that it is almost impossible to generalize about Mexican migration or the effects of the new law, because migration patterns vary dramatically from region to region and town to town. The law favors rural workers over urban workers, for example, so the effects on a community that sends primarily to cities would vary greatly from those of a place like Gomez Farias.
Sergio Zendejas, coordinator of the Center of Rural Studies at the Colegio de Michoacan, said one of the law's effects has been to reinforce the phenomenon of people from a particular place in Mexico going to a particular place in the States. For example, from Gomez Farias people tend to go to Watsonville, Calif. From Ucacuaro many go to Fort Worth, Texas.
The connection has very practical explanations. A migrant is most likely to go to a place where he has relatives or friends who can put him up for a while and help him find work. Zendejas said the new law has reinforced these links, because a person who goes now may need help in getting false papers or in learning the ins and outs of the law's provisions.
Zendejas said he knows of one girl from Ucacuaro who wanted to work in northern California. Her relatives helped her get a false letter saying she had worked the necessary time for an apple grower in order to get a temporary permit.
But that was just the beginning. Immigration officials ask detailed questions of applicants to make sure they are what they claim to be. So her brothers living in northern California, who had their own papers in order, met her in Tijuana and spent three days in a hotel room teaching her every possible thing she might be asked about life in an apple orchard. She got in with no problem, but people without such help find it difficult, said Zendejas.
With the implementation of the new law has come a stepped-up enforcement effort, and Celia Alvarez Garcia's husband felt the effects. He tried to cross the border three times this spring but was caught each time and finally gave up, she said.
He's back home now, spending much of his time drinking, and just recently he attacked her with a chain when he was drunk, she said.
Although many of the men who go north send back money that helps their families buy everything from videocassette recorders to land and houses, her husband has not been one of those men, she said. "When he goes, he doesn't bring anything." She has to get what work she can, cleaning houses or picking strawberries, to feed her seven children.
Still, she said, she prefers that to having the men in town. Although for some women the return of the men is the highlight of the year, many of them get drunk during the holiday fiestas and roar through town in their new cars and trucks. One year, a man hit and injured one of her children, she said.
As she sat in front of a grocery store, looking out on the nearly empty town plaza where two women tended their children and a middle-aged man and 10-year-old boy lounged in front of the pool hall, she said, "At least it's quieter, more peaceful" when the men are gone. "One feels more at ease when they leave."