Josh Nichols enjoys a warm cup of coffee at his home in Tijuana, Mexico. TNS
Wendy Fry, Tribune News Service
They come for the tacos. Or the music. Or the nightlife. They stay to live a less-expensive lifestyle or to retire in a casita in the sand.
American immigrants living the Mexican dream can have the same hopes and goals of the Mexican immigrant in the United States: to get a little ahead or to start a new life. There may be more Americans living south-of-the-border than previously noticed.
Last month, Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador tasked his foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, with gathering data on US immigrants, who also go largely undocumented.
The Mexican government determined Americans are actually Mexico’s largest group of immigrants. Lopez Obrador mentioned the southbound surge last week during a speech in Tijuana promoting friendship between the two countries.
“A little-cited fact is that in Mexico, there are about 1.2 million Americans. That is, our two countries are protagonists of the largest demographic exchange in the world,” said Lopez Obrador.
The US Embassy in Mexico City said the figure might be an undercount, because many Americans overstay their visa. They estimated there are more than 1.5 million US-born citizens in Mexico, including some 600,000 US-born children of Mexican parents whose families have returned home. For 34-year-old Josh Nichols, who moved to Mexico City three years ago and now lives in Tijuana, it wasn’t the cheaper rent or the nightlife or the beaches. He fell in love with the culture and the pace of his lifestyle south of the border.
“(Here) I probably get to spend a lot more of my time just socialising, especially with people that I don’t know,” said Nichols. “One of the things I really like about Mexico is just that people tend to be more open.”
Nichols mentioned the Spanish word convivencia, which literally translates to coexistence, but he said he doesn’t think the translation gives the full context of the word.
“You know how the Eskimos have so many different words for snow? If you interact with something more, you have more vocabulary to describe that thing,” he said. “I don’t know that we have a word in the United States for just sharing time with one another and I think that word reflects a big cultural difference between the two countries.”
President Donald Trump has made bemoaning northbound immigration the cornerstone of his presidency, initially targeting Mexicans and then Central Americans. But, the number of unauthorised Mexicans living in the US has fallen by 2 million people during the last decade or so, from 6.9 million in 2007 to 4.9 million in 2017, according to Pew Research Center.
The number of Mexicans living in the United States declined so sharply over the past decade that Mexicans are no longer the country’s largest demographic of undocumented migrants. Many are returning home.
Apprehensions of Mexicans at the US border also dropped from a high of 1.6 million in 2000 to 152,257 in 2018. For the third consecutive fiscal year, apprehensions of non-Mexicans outnumbered those of Mexicans.
Meanwhile, the number of Americans living in Mexico has increased by more than four times since 1990, according to federal data. For Nichols, who left Colorado several years ago, the sense of community is stronger in Mexico, and he has some ideas about why.
“If you’re rich, you have access to lots of materials. If you get sick, you can buy medicine. If you get bored, you can buy entertainment. And you can basically be a terrible person if you want to without it necessarily affecting your survival,” said Nichols.
“But if you’re poor, there might be a day when you don’t have food. Or you get sick and you need your neighbour to take care of you. So, you have to be nice and you have to maintain those relationships with your family and your neighbour and your community. You need to have people around you that are going to bring you food. I see that all the time in Mexico,” he said.
Trump has repeatedly threatened to impose punishing sanctions on Mexico unless they stem the flow of migrants making their way to the United States border. In Mexico, the federal government takes a very different approach with its American immigrant population, whether they are legal or not.
“We have never pressured them to have their documents in order,” Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard told The Washington Post.
He has not yet respond to questions from the Union-Tribune about whether that lenient attitude will continue amid Mexico’s crackdown on migration spurred by pressure from the Trump administration. But that’s unlikely. Mexican authorities believe Americans stimulate the local economy, just like Mexicans do in the US, they said.
In recent weeks, Mexican authorities have set up immigration checkpoints along main northbound highways and have been aggressively detaining and deporting thousands of migrants from Central America, Haiti and Cuba.
If and when the Mexican government does enforce their immigration laws against Americans who overstay their six-month visa, it’s usually just with a small fine. But “expats,” as they call themselves, could face other penalties.
International tax attorney Enrique Hernandez-Pulido said US citizens living in Mexico may face tax obligations they are unaware of, which could result in a costly fine. “The first thing to understand is that the US is the only country in the world that taxes based on citizenship and not residency,” said Hernandez-Pulido.
That means a US citizen living in Mexico, even if they work for a Mexican company, has to pay taxes to the US on that income. “What happens is many people, maybe the majority, have tax obligations in the US that they may not know about and may not be paying or complying with,” he said.
Hernandez-Pulido said often times people living in Mexico earning under a certain amount will only have to file for an exemption with the IRS, but if they don’t do it, they could face the $10,000 tax fine.
“So, let’s say you have a retiree down in San Felipe with $15,000 in the bank collecting a small amount of interest annually. They probably don’t owe much, but if they don’t file for that exemption, it can become a nightmare for them,” he said, who feels bad for US retirees who have faced stiff penalties during a US crackdown on collecting those fines.
“They just go to live a simpler life, stretch out their retirement dollars, but they can end up with a ‘tax tragedy’ that almost cleans them out,” Hernandez-Pulido said.
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