The call of a rooster is drowned out by the sounds of construction crews paid for by American dollars, reminding Martha and Artemio Mendoza of just how much their lives in Mexico depend on the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November.
They don’t speak English but they understand two words: Donald Trump.
“Life would be very tough,” says Martha about a possible Trump presidency. “We would be poorer than we are now.”
Martha and Artemio are both 63 years old, they have no pension, and live off of $150 to $200 a month sent by their son Juan, who is an undocumented immigrant living in Chicago. They are terrified of Trump’s campaign promise to stop money transfers sent south of the border by undocumented immigrants, unless Mexico pays $5 to $10 billion to build a border wall.
“It’s not right,” Martha tells CNN, as she cooks breakfast corn tortillas from scratch in her outside kitchen.
She stretches every dollar, cooking in a simple open-air kitchen. It has no complete walls. A bird song carries through the open corrugated metal roof that rests on an exposed brick fence and a pair of two-by-fours. In the center sits a weathered blue table she uses to prepare food and a metal barrel converted into a firewood stove.
“If I cook on a gas stove I spend too much money,” Martha says as she flips tortillas on the makeshift griddle atop the firewood stove.
It would cost an extra 30 cents a day to use gas to cook a local staple of tortillas and beans. While that may be pocket change to many, it isn’t for Martha and nearly 90 percent of her 2,300 neighbors in Francisco Villa. They pay for the basics, like food, water and electricity, with the slow trickle of American cash they receive from their migrant relatives living and working in the U.S., according to village leaders.
Last year alone, nearly $25 billion were sent from the U.S. to Mexico, on average in amounts of $300, according to the Mexican Central Bank.
If the current trend continues, transfers could exceed $25 billion in 2016. This year, 40 percent of that money is going to families in the Mexican states of Michoacan, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Mexico state and Puebla through electronic money transfers, according to Mexican Central Bank records.
My parents ‘would die’
Juan says his heart and soul wept when he asked his mother for a goodbye blessing. He was 19-years-old when he left with his wife and 9-month-old daughter on the perilous journey to enter the U.S. illegally. He fought back tears, he says. The pain of leaving his family paralyzed him; he could barely speak. But Juan promised his parents they would never go hungry. He vowed to send them American dollars.
It is a promise Juan has kept for 21 years, even in the 1990s when he only earned $250 a week. But if Donald Trump prevails in November and delivers on his promise to cut off money transfers from the U.S. to Mexico, Juan fears he might be forced to break his commitment at a time when his elderly mother suffers from hypertension and asthma, he says. And Juan says his father’s spinal cord injury and diabetes impede him from working outside the home.
“Not only would they suffer a lot they would die earlier than they should,” Juan tells CNN.
The raw emotion takes over Juan, as he explains he feels trapped between two borders. He is the breadwinner for his parents, and while he yearns to reunite with them to deliver the money in person, he knows the risk of re-entering the U.S. illegally.
Juan asked CNN to change his name because he fears losing his job and all he has worked for since arriving in Chicago. He has a lot to lose. Illinois is one of a dozen states that offer driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. After going to a driver’s education course Juan obtained one, allowing him to open a bank account and get a mortgage. Juan is haunted by the fear of deportation, even though he’s as close to reaching the American dream as anyone else he knows.
“I suffer a lot,” Juan says. “It’s been so many years now, it’s like carrying a heavy rock on me.”
Trump’s proposed plan
While Donald Trump has publicly threatened to stop money transfers from undocumented immigrants from the U.S. to Mexico to force them to pay for the border wall, his website goes more in depth, offering a step-by-step plan.
On day one, Trump will use the Patriot Act to require legal identification for money transfer transactions, according to his website. After a few days, Mexico will protest against these measures and Trump will roll out trade tariffs, visa cancellations and visa fee increases, Trump proclaims on his site.
“Even a small increase in visa fees would pay for the wall. This includes fees on border crossing cards, of which more than 1 million are issued a year,” Trump says on the website.
CNN legal analyst Paul Callan says Trump’s plan could face multiple legal battles.
“The Mexican immigrants Trump seeks to target are clearly not the ‘Radical Islamic Terrorists’ that the Patriot Act was designed to fight,” says Callan. “The courts are likely to view Mr. Trump’s use of the always controversial Patriot Act as an improper and illegal use. The proposal may also fail to place pressure on the Mexican government as money can be smuggled back to Mexico in many other creative ways if wire transfers are cut.”
Mexican village: Made in America
Trump’s threats have Francisco Villa town leader, Jaime Leon, worried about the future of his small village.
“Francisco Villa, without money transfers [from the US], will drown” he says. “It will downward spiral.”
American dollars are reflected on just about every corner of this small town. Leon takes CNN on a tour, pointing at every public and private project touched by dollars earned by migrants working in the U.S.
He starts with the paved roads we are driving on, the corrugated metal roofs at the elementary school, the park, the community college, the church and the public water system.
Then the pavement ends. That is where the migrant money has gone dry. The road paving project is still ongoing.
The final stop is a few minutes’ drive past the populated village, where a dirt road ends with giant white greenhouses. Leon says migrants in the U.S. have allocated money specifically for the greenhouse project, which employs 14 people who grow and pick tomatoes.
More than $70,000 invested,” Leon says.The Mexican government also encourages migrants to invest money in Francisco Villa, by matching every dollar on public projects three-to-one.
Another 35 jobs are generated in town by migrants who sent money back to relatives to build new homes and then maintain them, Leon says. New construction is sprinkled throughout town.
When Juan left Francisco Villa 21 years ago, the homes were made of basic materials like adobe, exposed cinderblock, with outside laundry rooms and kitchens. Today, those homes are shadowed by the modern two-story structures that many families have been saving for years, if not decades, to afford.
More illegal immigration?
One of those homes is owned by Alfredo Gamez. He is living in the U.S. legally and sends between $1,000 and $1,500 monthly to his aging parents, his college-aged son and a guard he employs to look over his second home in his native Francisco Villa. Gamez says he entered the U.S. illegally in the 1980s and started off making $100 dollars a week.
“I had to use those $100 to pay rent and to buy food. It was so difficult that in some cases we had to eat as little as possible,” Gamez told CNN.
His desperate situation was brief. After working several jobs he obtained legal status through an amnesty program and eventually started his own lawn care business. Gamez has seen, as well as lived and breathed the cycle of immigration. That’s why he believes Trump’s plan to freeze money transfers will backfire.
“It would lead to illegal immigration,” Gamez tells CNN.
The estimated 50 jobs created through money transfers in Francisco Villa will end, he says, if Trump takes the White House. And the people holding those jobs will head towards the U.S. to meet their basic needs, Gamez says.
“Many people will go desperate or hungry and will want to help feed their families. They will head [to the US],” Gamez told CNN. “Trump talks about building a border wall; but nothing will stop people when they are hungry and when they are in need.”
Juan’s father Artemio fears hopelessness will lead to lawlessness in Francisco Villa.
“Crime would go up because everyone here receives money from across the border,” Artemio tells CNN. “What are they going to do? Well, they are going to start robbing.”
The potential criminal element wouldn’t be limited to the Mexican side of the border, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.
Industry stakeholders and money transmitters told the GAO that even a limit imposed on wire transfers “would likely drive transactions underground” and “resort to alternative methods of laundering proceeds.”
CNN reached out to Trump’s campaign for comment on this piece, specifically the potential impact of ending money transfers and the effect on illegal immigration. His campaign did not address the money transfers, but maintained its position that building a wall was the right solution.
“Building a border wall, ending illegal immigration and enforcing U.S. laws will reduce poverty, defund the cartels and increase wages, prosperity and safety on both sides of the U.S. border,” Trump senior policy advisor Stephen Miller told CNN. “Hillary Clinton’s policy will empower cartels and endanger workers in Mexico and the United States.”
As the sun sets over Francisco Villa, the rolling hills surrounding the small village begin to disappear into the darkness.
Juan has only seen pictures of the current landscape, including the two-story house his parents built for him with the extra money he has sent for more than two decades. He’s only seen pictures of all of the paved roads, the new benches in the town square that bear his name, the tomato greenhouses and so many other projects he has chipped in to build.
“They are here in the different community projects we have done. A piece of their heart is here,” Leon, the town leader says about Juan and others like him who are in the U.S. illegally. “We yearn their return because they are a very important part of the transformation of Francisco Villa.”
With Trump at the top of the GOP ticket, Juan says his road ahead is forked. While he has worked, cried and fought to make something of himself in the U.S., if Trump becomes president, he says he might leave it all behind. He contemplates whether he would leave his job, sell his Chicago home and head to Canada or Mexico to reunite with his parents in Francisco Villa, the only place, he says, he would be welcomed.
“It’s so tough; but I pray to God that he can return one day,” says Juan’s mother Martha as she wipes tears from her face.
His father Artemio also breaks down crying, saying he fears dying alone from diabetes while his son is in Chicago, without a way to visit his grave.
“It brings me so much pain, mostly because of my sickness,” Artemio says. “I can die at any moment. If my sugar levels rise too quickly, that’s it.”
CNN’s Jake Carpenter, Brad Parks, Dave Ruff and Mallory Simon contributed to this story.