Mexican hospitality migrants and the spatial and geographic regulation of mobility

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Geraldina Polanco McMaster University, Canada

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Mobility (and control over it) is partially mediated by migrant capital and how it is evaluated across time and space. This study draws on the concept of multiple migration – wherein migration is viewed as potentially multidirectional and open-ended over the life course – to examine the plight of male, Mexican hospitality staff globally on the move. These participants are unique in that they had experience working as hospitality staff in different countries under different legal classifications. In the US they were undocumented, in Mexico they were deported nationals, and in Canada they were received as temporary migrant workers. Their accounts bring different mobilities – illegal, forced, contract, and returned – under one analytical frame to illuminate how mobilities are spatially and geographically regulated. As the article details, their mobility depended on the resources they accrued during migration and whether these resources could be converted into relevant capital, with class, gender and race significant mediating factors. When contextualised, their accounts offer unique insights into immigration controls, transnational labour regimes, political economy and how access to capital shapes gendered identities and hierarchies. Their evaluations vis-à-vis other (global) workers also mediated their legal incorporation, governed by normative ideals that shape prospects and life outcomes in the current economy.

Abstract

Mobility (and control over it) is partially mediated by migrant capital and how it is evaluated across time and space. This study draws on the concept of multiple migration – wherein migration is viewed as potentially multidirectional and open-ended over the life course – to examine the plight of male, Mexican hospitality staff globally on the move. These participants are unique in that they had experience working as hospitality staff in different countries under different legal classifications. In the US they were undocumented, in Mexico they were deported nationals, and in Canada they were received as temporary migrant workers. Their accounts bring different mobilities – illegal, forced, contract, and returned – under one analytical frame to illuminate how mobilities are spatially and geographically regulated. As the article details, their mobility depended on the resources they accrued during migration and whether these resources could be converted into relevant capital, with class, gender and race significant mediating factors. When contextualised, their accounts offer unique insights into immigration controls, transnational labour regimes, political economy and how access to capital shapes gendered identities and hierarchies. Their evaluations vis-à-vis other (global) workers also mediated their legal incorporation, governed by normative ideals that shape prospects and life outcomes in the current economy.

I met Fito, a 42-year-old Mexican national, in Mexico City in 2015. Fito had spent three years in Canada as a temporary migrant worker at Tim Hortons, Canada’s leading fast-food corporation. Curious about how he fulfilled the requirements to pursue temporary work in Canada, I asked about his hospitality experience and English language skills. He told me that when he was 19, at the behest of his father, he commissioned a smuggler to help him cross into the US. Following a two-week ‘hard but gratifying’ journey, Fito settled, undocumented, in Texas. For the next 15 years, he worked a series of low-wage service-sector jobs primarily in restaurants. Despite his legal precarity, Fito said he integrated fully into American society. He built social networks, learned English, and established a family. But he was apprehended by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and deported back to Mexico. Although he longed to return to America, he knew a second border crossing would be more difficult than his first. Serendipitously, he heard about a guest-worker programme and arrived as a global fast-food worker in Canada four years later.

I interviewed Fito as part of my research on the recruitment and employment of Mexican temporary migrant workers in Canadian fast-food restaurants. He is one of the 18 male migrant workers I interviewed. Fifteen spent time living and working undocumented in the US. Given Fito’s modest level of formal education (he never completed high school) and limited social capital, he had few prospects in Mexico. Following his deportation, he faced many challenges in reintegrating into Mexican society, but the most pressing was finding a job in alimentos (foods) that offered a living wage. He wanted a ‘profession’ but found that his skills were inadequately remunerated: ‘Here [in Mexico] it’s too difficult…. The pay is so low. I tried to work here in a restaurant. I told them my experience, everything I have. But they don’t want to pay’.

Given the developmental disparities that divide the Global North and South, food service work in Mexico did not afford Fito the lifestyle and purchasing power he became accustomed to in the US. During the interview, he oscillated between displays of pride as he recounted his achievements in the US, and visceral lows where he lamented restrictive immigration policies and being relegated to the bottom tiers of the service economy. As with other participants, the injustice he felt as a racialised, working-class man from the Global South trying to make it in a global economy was palpable. What dismayed him the most was that his US work experience and English language skills (which he was proud of) did not translate into opportunities in Mexico. He couldn’t convert his mobility – a resource – into relevant capital (Moret, 2018: 99).

Fito’s experience, and that of his compatriots, allows us to compare transnational temporary-migration regimes and their impact on the life chances and gender identity of racialised male migrant workers. Most of the men I spoke to lived in the US as undocumented workers, returned to Mexico as deportees, and lived in Canada as temporary migrant workers under that country’s guest-worker scheme. Some became retornados (returnees) at the end of their contracts. Their trajectories are an example of multiple migration, wherein contemporary migration is no longer viewed as a linear movement from point A to point B but rather recognised as potentially multidirectional and open-ended over a lifetime (Choi, 2022). Their accounts bring different mobilities – illegal, forced, contract, and returned – under one analytical frame to illuminate how mobilities are spatially and geographically regulated.

Mobility (and control over it) is partially mediated by migrant capital and how it is evaluated across time and space. As we will see, migrant workers reminisced critically and compared their experiences during and after migration. Their mobility depended on the resources they accrued during migration and whether these resources could be converted into relevant capital. When contextualised, their accounts offer unique insights into immigration controls, transnational labour regimes, political economy, and how access to capital shapes gendered identities and hierarchies.

Multinational migrations

Although 20th-century migration scholarship focused primarily on single-origin to single-terminus migrations, the reality is that migrants can make multiple moves in their lifetime (King and Skeldon, 2010). Recent research seeks to examine these migrations empirically, including assessments of immigrant status, skills, and geographies.

Paul and Yeoh (2021) introduce the concept of ‘multinational migrations’ to foreground the commonalities in multiple migrations. An intentionally broad concept, ‘multinational migration’ encompasses multiple migrations across the life course with extended stays in different country. These migrations are open-ended, ‘contingent on shifting and uneven capitals, structured by fluid multinational migration infrastructures, and shaped by migrants’ evolving geographical imaginaries, aspirations and sense of themselves’ (Paul and Yeoh, 2021: 6). ‘Multinational migrations’ illuminates the lines along which inclusion or exclusion is regulated within diverse transnational labour regimes, determining the prospects available to workers.

Multiple migration is varied. Stepwise international migration is a form of multistage migration. Aspiring migrants acquire migrant capital by strategically migrating to lower-status destinations along a hierarchy of countries that leads to their preferred destination (Paul, 2011; 2017). ‘Onward migration’ is a reactive form of migration. Settled migrants (usually of lesser skill) are forced into unplanned migrations because of circumstances in their country of residence such as financial crises (for example, Giralt, 2017; Ramos, 2018). ‘Global multiple migration’ refers to the intentional migration of elites. For purposes of self-realisation, elite migrants move to multiple destinations to accrue mobility, which they convert into other forms of relevant capital to achieve their life goals. These migrants do not have a preferred destination in mind (mobility can include lower and lateral destinations). Their vision of migration is fluid and open-ended. For them, migration is a mechanism of distinction (Choi, 2022).

The concept of ‘multinational migration’, when combined with specific types of multiple migration, captures Fito’s and his compatriots’ journeys. I examine the capital they accrued vis-à-vis the infrastructures that governed their mobility and the social imaginaries and structures that stimulated their aspirations and subjectivities. As we will see, geographical imaginings are shaped by time and space. Although identity is subjective, there is a governance component to it, especially for low-capital migrants relegated to the margins of the service economy.

Methodology

This article is the product of a transnational study of fast-food labour migration from Mexico to Canada. The project included 43 expert interviews and ethnographic research in Canada and Mexico in 2015. I conducted interviews with agents of governance such as government officials, labour recruiters, consultants, and fast-food employers, and with a range of actors who provide support to migrants on the ground (such as NGOs). I made custom data requests to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada. In Mexico, I made informal requests to the Secretaría del Trabajo y Previsión Social (Mexican Department of Labour and Social Welfare). I also engaged in participant observation in relevant institutional spaces such as recruitment fairs and migrant pre-departure preparation seminars. Here, I home in on my interviews with Mexican fast-food migrant workers: the majority were male, 86% reported having less than a high school diploma, and the bulk had experienced deportation from the US (Polanco, 2019). I also reference the broader institutional context that regulated their mobility, as it shaped their desires, subjectivities, and trajectories.

Migration infrastructures and labour regimes in North America

Studying multiple migrations requires paying attention to the structures and forces that enable or impede mobility and the links between mobility, stasis, and halted movement (Giralt, 2017: 2). My participants’ migration journeys included voluntary and forced migration and undocumented and contract labour. Different immigration controls shaped their experiences and regulated their ability to convert resources such as migration into relevant capital.

Many participants migrated ‘illegally’ to the US during periods when borders were patrolled less than they are today. The timing of these initial migrations meant they could settle in a host of American states and find employment. Their material lives improved, and they experienced upward mobility within a range of restaurants, however modest from a Western, middle-class perspective. Within this labour regime, employers recruited staff from the local population, including teenagers and workers with few prospects, along with ‘illegal’ migrants.

By contrast, in guest-worker schemes, employers can recruit workers from any country. In recent decades, manufacturing has become footloose, and capital has scavenged the developing world in search of profitable workers (for example, Fernandez-Kelly, 1983; Chan and Ross, 2003).1 Employers in guest-worker schemes exploit the First World–Third World divide to recruit staff. Rather than relocating, however, they import workers. They source migrant workers who perceive low-skilled and low-waged work in Canada as an opportunity (rather than an employment niche of last resort); they can ‘pick’ workers along class, gender, race, and nationality lines (Preibisch, 2010: 404). Moreover, unlike in the domestic context, global recruitment allows recruiters to be hyper-selective (Polanco, 2017).

In 2002, Canada introduced the Low-Skilled Pilot, now referred to colloquially as the Low-Skilled Stream (LSS). Operating under Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, the LSS gave employers the ability to recruit ‘low-skilled’ labour beyond the historical limits of agricultural workers or domestic caregivers. The programme was slow to take off, but employers have since used it to recruit workers for a range of sectors. Between 2002 and 2019, 54,885 work visas were approved for ‘food-counter attendants’, the official title given to entry-level fast-food workers.

Although temporary labour schemes are considered global in their reach, and even though employers have sourced workers from a range of countries (including China, El Salvador, and India), the leading source country for fast-food workers in western Canada is the Philippines. The Philippines outpaced other labour-sending countries by 78% between 2002 and 2019 (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, 2020). In contrast, just under 4% were recruited from Mexico between 2005 and 2010 (Polanco, 2019).

As research shows, who becomes a ‘preferred worker’ depends in part on labour brokers and the sending state’s migration apparatus. In western Canada, the ‘ideal’ workforce is widely imagined as Filipino (Polanco, 2016). The Philippines, through its ‘labour brokerage state’ (Rodriguez, 2010), invests significant resources into creating ‘ideal’ workers for export (Guevarra, 2010): workers who are English-speaking, docile, ‘loyal’, college-educated, and ‘culturally tailored’ to navigate work and life in the receiving destination (Polanco, 2017). The Filipino migration apparatus ascribes its citizenry with higher levels of cultural capital; it deploys migrants with college credentials and middle-class dispositions. It socialises its citizens to be ‘migrant heroes’ and to perform an ideal migrant subjectivity (Guevarra, 2010), a disposition meant to encourage consent to exploitation.

In contrast, the Mexican state migration apparatus is less sophisticated when it comes to worker socialisation and branding (Polanco, 2019). It cannot deliver the same ‘quality’ workforce (real or imagined) – including eager, middle-class subjects – because it is less willing to engage in transnational deskilling (Polanco, 2019). Mexico instituted an educational maximum in the case of food-counter attendant work – no more than high school – because Canadian employers and corporations felt that, in contrast to Filipinos, Mexican middle-class workers had a harder time accepting entry-level occupations (Polanco, 2019). In practice, this means the cultural capital (embodied and institutional) of Mexican workers is markedly lower. As we shall see, their habitus and relations in the field (the restaurant) marked them as less desirable workers. Indeed, some recruiters reported that Mexico ‘over-promised and under-delivered in their workers to Canada’ (see Polanco and Zell, 2017; Polanco, 2019).

Under Canada’s LSS, there is a slight possibility that migrants will transition from temporary to permanent status. Through provincial nominee programmes (employer-sponsored pathways to permanent residency), the federal government allows provincial and territorial governments to nominate selected workers for legal incorporation. The problem is that employers must support the nomination of workers, and the candidate must meet a series of provincial and federal criteria.

As my research documents indicate, most workers are not nominated, and when they are, employers show a strong preference for Filipino workers. Many Mexican migrants do not meet the minimum criteria for successful nomination (Polanco, 2019), fuelling tension and resentment among Mexican migrants. Most Mexicans learn of the possibility of permanent residency at a late stage. There’s no way Mexico’s migration apparatus could have anticipated the Philippines’ sophisticated migration apparatus. It unwittingly set up its citizens to fail. Employers viewed Fito and his compatriots favourably for selected restaurant tasks, but not as ideal food-counter attendants. Rather than seeing their treatment as the product of migration infrastructures and transnational labour regimes, Fito and others like him internalised ‘failure’ as part of their identity.

The hierarchy behind the counter

The Mexican migrants I interviewed reported that supervisors, managers, and employers preferred to assign them physical tasks, including baking, cleaning, and loading/ unloading boxes, to name a few. The worksites’ division of labour was organised along gendered and racialised lines. How they related to other workers was governed by migration infrastructures. According to Pedro’s account: ‘The manager was a woman, the cashiers were women, and so they put everything on me. They didn’t want to do anything physically hard…. So everything heavy became my job’. Pedro’s contention that the women ‘didn’t want to do anything’ and ‘put everything’ on him will be interrogated. But not the gendered and racialised distribution of work. Another participant, Simon, stated, ‘We had to get our hands dirty, do the heavy stuff. We did the hard stuff others didn’t want to do’.

Before the Low-Skilled Pilot, employers bemoaned their inability to recruit staff, including young men, to perform ‘physical jobs in the store’ (Polanco, 2017: 75). The pilot granted fast-food employers access to female and male workers, naturalising men’s superiority for manual work and serving capital’s interests (Scrinzi, 2010: 45). In this case, they could access motivated Mexican men for selected manual tasks through global recruitment. However, the expectation that Mexicans would perform physical tasks while others avoided ‘getting their hands dirty’ led to resentment among migrants who felt they were expected to work harder. As Pedro explained: ‘They [Canadian workers] are lazy. They don’t like to do anything. Why should I work so hard, lifting and hauling, and they stand there?’ Although Pedro may have downplayed the tasks performed by his coworkers as a form of resistance, the gendered and racialised organisation of worksites has been widely documented (for example, Elson and Pearson, 1981; Raijman and Semyonov, 1997; McDowell et al, 2007; 2009).

Pedro’s task allocation, and the gendered and racialised logic that informed it, reflect imagined ideal tasks for Mexican migrants and others. As Daniel explained, ‘They [Canadians] don’t like to do anything, nothing more than take orders and not do anything else…. There is more work, to sweep the floor, to clean. And they don’t do it. They don’t like that, and so they play dumb’. Miguel echoed Daniel: ‘They never finish their jobs. And so that’s where we [Mexican migrant workers] come in. We’re the ones who have to do what they don’t want to do’.

Mexicans thought Canadians received preferential treatment because they ultimately had more power to resist undesirable tasks such as cleaning. But employers also assigned them interactive jobs (‘take orders and do nothing else’). This became a point of contention for some Mexican migrants. A government agent working on behalf of the Mexican migration apparatus reported that some of the migrants deployed to Canada refused to perform tasks they considered beyond the scope of food-counter attendant work. Susana explained, ‘They say they will take orders, make sandwiches, pour coffees, but nothing else. So of course, el jefe [the boss] was mad…. I tell them that cleaning and loading boxes is part of the work. But some of these guys, they don’t listen’.

Employers considered Filipino migrants suitable (if not ideal and, arguably, better than Canadians) for interactive work such as taking customer orders. Indeed, media reports on food services widely document the sidelining of Canadian workers in favour of foreign staff. This favouritism is in part the product of immigration controls and migration regimes that render migrant workers more vulnerable (read: desirable) to employers than domestic recruits (Preibisch, 2010). Compared to Mexicans, Filipinos were viewed as having a more gracious way of engaging with others and were praised for their ability to keep their problems in their back pockets (Polanco and Zell, 2017; Polanco, 2019). This comparison reflects the deference and emotional labour expected of interactive service workers and the feminisation and racialisation of Filipinos (see Tyner, 2004; McDowell, 2008). Indeed, while there were both female and male Filipino workers employed at these restaurants, they were widely gendered as possessing highly feminised qualities.

Working-class Mexican men routinely face difficulties hiding their discontent. Indeed, research shows that working-class men employed in interactive service occupations often lack ‘the emotional management skills and verbal dexterity to deflect or resist confrontation in anything but an aggressive or physical manner’ (Nixon, 2009: 316). Moreover, ‘sticking up for yourself is a defining characteristic of the masculine working-class habitus’ (Nixon, 2009: 310). In contrast, male Filipino migrants tend to be college-educated and socialised to view migration to Canada as an opportunity; they resist responding in anything but a pleasant manner (Polanco, 2017).

While the preference for Filipino migrants is no doubt tied to their racialisation under global labour regimes, it also reflects that they have higher levels of cultural capital than their Mexican counterparts, including socialisation processes of sending migration apparatuses. In terms of institutionalised cultural capital, Filipino recruiters regularly require college credentials, which lends Filipino workers a markedly middle-class habitus. This habitus, ‘which includes bodily comportment and speaking as markers of distinction’ (Erel, 2010: 643), inevitably positioned Filipino migrant workers (men and women) as better suited for the interactive demands of the work, that is, they had better emotional management skills and verbal dexterity. Filipinos are also socialised by their state’s migration apparatus to perceive migration to Canada as a chance to secure Canadian citizenship (Polanco, 2016), solidifying their performance of consent.

Although Mexican workers were esteemed for some tasks, they were not preferred over their Filipino counterparts (both men and women). The Mexican migration apparatus did not stimulate their desire to migrate permanently to Canada; this came later, once they worked in Canada. Indeed, most learned of this pathway from Filipino workers, who arrived at the worksite ready to compete for a coveted nomination. Delayed awareness of permanent residency shaped how Mexican workers were perceived. They were valued for their physical qualities and manual skills but seen as too abrasive and ‘rough around the edges’ for interactive jobs and, by default, life in Canada.

Resisting capital deficit

In North America, fast food is considered low-status, low-waged work, suitable as a first-time job for teenagers or selected vulnerable segments of the local labour market. It offers low levels of remuneration and is often part-time, which employers justify on the grounds of its highly routinised nature. Indeed, high turnover is a leading management problem in the sector. Workers abandon employment if they can secure better opportunities elsewhere. The sector thus tends to rely on staff with few prospects in the labour market; fast food is the quintessential ‘bad’ job of the service economy (Leidner, 1993; Reiter, 2001; Tannock, 2001; Royle, 2010). Within this terrain, employers seek to motivate staff, while workers engage in a host of strategies to resist debasement. For those working in temporary labour schemes or undocumented regimes, however, leaving the job or sector is significantly more cumbersome. They must find strategies to resist their debasement.

In the case of men recruited into feminised service-sector jobs, research shows that (migrant) men engage in manhood acts and compensatory masculine strategies to resist emasculation, a gendered variant of debasement (for example, Cross and Bagilhole, 2002; Broughton, 2008; Seeley, 2018). These strategies include emphasising the quality of their work (Slutskaya et al, 2016); claiming a professional identity (for example, Scrinzi, 2010; Choi, 2018); positioning themselves as part of management (for example, Seeley, 2018); emphasising their ability to perform physically demanding tasks (McKay and Lucero-Prisno, 2011; Scrinzi, 2010; Kukreja, 2021a; 2021b); and socially comparing themselves with devalued others (for example, Slutskaya et al, 2016). My participants’ accounts discursively reflect these compensatory masculine strategies, which I argue are aimed at recouping a desired masculine subjectivity in the face of migration and labour regimes that widely emasculate working-class men.

My participants primarily ascribed a skilled quality to their work, made possible by their time in the US. Indeed, despite the low status imposed on food-counter attendant work in North America, most were proud to work in alimentos (food services) and at times boasted about their work. Moreover, they took pride in the quality of their work. Rodrigo stated: ‘I can make you a sandwich in under a minute. The best sandwich you’ve ever had! If you want it toasted, okay, takes a little more time…. But, yeah, my sandwiches are the best’. Tito stated, ‘With my work, I was able to demonstrate my worth and show what I came to do, which was work…. Our [the Mexicans’] work spoke for itself. They respected us…. That is how… they [coworkers and managers] came to respect our work’.

By emphasising quality and experience, my participants indirectly resisted the label ‘low-skilled’. They recounted their initial experience in entry-level positions in the US and their upward mobility into supervisory and management roles. Take Alejandro’s work experience as a case in point. In his early twenties, he migrated to the US. His first job was washing dishes. Then he worked as a line cook in a Chinese restaurant. He worked concurrently in a fast-food restaurant, but left the job after two years when he was made manager of the kitchen in the Chinese restaurant. After three years, he moved to the front of the house, where he worked for another two years. He moved on to table service in a family-style restaurant. When he recounted this employment history, he described at length the different skills acquired at each establishment, facilitated by his ability to move across worksites.

Luis similarly emphasised his US employment history and expertise in the sector:

My first job in alimentos was fast food. McDonald’s. Also, another company called [name of diner-style restaurant]… With them, I worked for many years. Yeah, I got lots of experience in Los Estados Unidos [the US]. I had the opportunity to improve myself a lot, to rise. There [at the diner-style restaurant] I even got to be general manager. They gave me training for that. They sent me to study. First, they gave me training to be the shift manager. And then they gave me training to be the general manager. At [diner-style restaurant] they had me as general manager. At McDonald’s, I was a shift manager. Really, by the end, I was mostly management.

Josue likewise emphasised his employment history and expertise: ‘I worked at a Wendy’s, as a cook, as a waiter…. Always in restaurants…. I can work in any restaurant!’

Alejandro, Josue, Juan, Luis, and Rodrigo emphasised the skill development facilitated by their employment and migration. They rejected their occupational devaluing and the perception that they had limited levels of institutional cultural capital. As low-capital illegal migrants in the US, they had the opportunity to work at different restaurants (presuming their illegality was not a barrier), which afforded them relative upward mobility. But they ultimately had few other prospects in the labour market. Indeed, they gained resources and experience through their migration and work but couldn’t mobilise their resources and convert them into other capital.

Given the structural terrain and the conditions upon which capital is mobilised, their discursive framings are forms of resistance. The emphasis they placed on their work and management experience framed their work as valuable and skilled. By embracing a professional status, they emphasised ‘traditional masculine traits – pride in one’s work, doing a proper job, having a career… being assertive’; they maintained ‘a sense of themselves as men’ (Cross and Bagilhole, 2002: 219). They distanced themselves from entry-level (read: low-status) work, rejecting the stigma, precarity, and feminisation imposed onto low-wage, service-sector jobs.

They recouped a normative masculine ideal along the lines of power and control in the US, even if it did not alter their capital deficit. Juan’s description is an overt illustration: ‘I had the power. I would say to people [staff in the US], ‘Can you do this? And you – can you do this?’…. The owner, he loved me. Sometimes, we’d even have a beer…. They paid me good. I was doing good’. By claiming to have control and power as part of management, Juan indirectly asserted himself as dominant, as a man. He valued the social time he spent with the owner as it marked his belonging to a managerial (read: higher) status in the organisation. He asserted this dominance even though it didn’t reconcile with his structural location as an ‘illegal’ migrant employed in the bottom tiers of the American economy.

Mexican workers couldn’t convert their accrued resources – migration, work experience, language capital – into other forms of capital such as mobility capital. Indeed, ‘mobility capital exists… only when ‘value is created’…. If not, then mobility practices remain what they are: the act of people moving across borders’ (Moret, 2018: 99, 107). Value in the context of mobility capital accrues when migrants can control their mobility, including through ‘legal capital’: the attainment of citizenship rights that grant mobility rights (Moret, 2020: 239). Moreover, while they could gain valuable experience under a migration regime that did not restrict labour mobility explicitly – thus gaining ‘accumulated technical and cognitive skills that’ would allow them to migrate to Canada (Moret, 2020: 240) – they were deported back to Mexico; they couldn’t convert their migration and work experience into improved labour market prospects or different types of capital there or in Canada. The strategies they employed to protect their identities and the employment trajectories they pursued held currency only in the US, marked by a particular form of precarious inclusion.

The temporality and spatiality of multinational migrations

Mexican migrants emphasised the opportunities and freedom they experienced in the US, despite their limited migration capital and illegal status. In contrast, they felt severely constrained in Canada. Most assumed that migration to Canada would be the same as migration to the US, but with the added benefit of legality. What they did not foresee was that they would be entering a different national context with a distinct labour regime regulating their stay. In the US, they were flexible but undocumented; in Canada, they were secure but inflexible. Both regimes were marked by conditions of profound precarity.

Guest-worker programmes such as the Low-Skilled Stream bar circulation in local labour markets and tie workers to one employer. Unlike in the US, Mexican migrants had limited chances to recoup a positive gender identity (or to nostalgically recall such a time). Many reported feeling frustrated by the lack of opportunities. Diego stated: ‘I would have liked to have moved up here [in Canada], to progress, according to my experience. But, sadly, in Canada, they don’t allow you to do that’. Fernando noted, ‘I would look at people, Canadian people, with all the jobs that I can’t even work because I have a contract’.

Barred from ‘moving up’ or ‘progressing’ according to their experience – and denied access to a ‘compensatory masculine strategy’ – some participants sought out and took on more responsibility for no extra pay. This was a tenuous scenario: on the one hand, they yearned for recognition and upward mobility and felt a sense of pride in performing higher-skilled work; on the other, they recognised this practice as a form of wage theft. Thus, they felt conflicted and were contradictory in their descriptions. Jorge stated: ‘The owner, he came to trust me. He even had me open the store sometimes…. He could see that I was good. Really good. He told me…. But he never paid me extra’. Jorge was recognised for his reliability and quality of work, yet not compensated accordingly. Thus, while he had the opportunity to perform more skilled work (which was affirming to his identity), he was denied recognition in pay or a title.

The performance of physically demanding tasks was another tenuous scenario related by participants. As noted, many resented having to perform physical tasks, especially if coworkers of higher social status resisted performing these tasks. But the ease by which some performed these physically-taxing jobs could also be gender-affirming. Pedro resented that his female coworkers ‘didn’t want to do anything’ and, by his account, ‘put everything’ on him. What upset him the most was the injustice of the situation (the extra work) and his marginalisation (the implied assertion that his skills were limited to physical tasks). However, he later said the store owner was surprised by how quickly he and another Mexican coworker unloaded a delivery. Pedro beamed as he recounted the owner’s admiration. Although his vigour and speed were gender-affirming, they paradoxically burdened him into working harder and performing the more physically-taxing jobs.

To resist emasculation, Mexican migrants compared themselves with others, including Canadians and other guest workers they devalued. They engaged in social comparisons to boost themselves up (Slutskaya et al, 2016), reflecting the relational and dynamic nature of gender (Kim, 2015: 135). As noted, participants often described Canadians as lazy, citing their supposed resistance to performing various tasks as proof and contrasting it to their superior, hard-working qualities. They selectively compared themselves with other migrant workers, especially Filipino migrant workers (both men and women), who, by my evaluation, they felt the most displaced by.

Many stated that managers and employers preferred Filipino temporary migrant workers over them, which they found frustrating and resented. In a context where preference can shape life outcomes (that is, opportunities or citizenship), they disparaged Filipino workers. They criticised what they saw as their extreme deference and loyalty to employers and managers. According to Diego: ‘They [Filipinos] would have died for the employer, right? Them, yes…. So they [the employer or manager] gave them overtime, the best tasks, they are like… more complacent with the bosses and, in other words, more, like, yeah, they gave them preferences’. Others suggested that, compared to their Filipino counterparts, they maintained their dignity by resisting devaluation and self-subordination. Nicolas stated: ‘I don’t have anything against Filipinos. They treated me fine. But… they said nothing [in the face of devaluation]. Me? No, no. I stand up for myself. I don’t do that’.

Diego’s and Nicolas’s selective comparisons with Filipino migrants should be read as a form of self-protection to resist their subordination. As an esteem-enhancing strategy, Nicolas’s criticism that ‘they said nothing’, in contrast to his supposed willingness to stand up for himself, is an affirmation that he (and not they) maintained some dignity and, hence, status as a man. His bravado, however, should not be read as indicative of a culture of machismo. Instead, it is more likely ‘an expression of vulnerability and social dislocation, serving both as a source of resistance simultaneously reinforcing anchors of social disadvantage’ (Slutskaya et al, 2016: 165). In this case, he was resisting his own ‘nonpreferred’ status by anchoring Filipino workers to perceived qualities such as docility, obedience, and femininity. He was engaging in an act of self-valorisation to reinstate his status comparatively.

This strategy is a product of the structural features of temporary labour schemes. Nicolas and his compatriots did not have the same capital as Filipino migrants or the opportunities that came with being ‘preferred’. Filipino recruits had the institutional cultural capital to compete for permanent residency under these contracts. Aside from being primarily college-educated, they benefitted from a migration apparatus that socialised them and branded them as the ‘Great Filipino Workers’, despite the harsh conditions that often characterise global contracts. This socialisation included giving them skills to endear them to global employers and knowledge of the opportunities that exist in foreign labour markets (however conflated). Indeed, the primary motivator driving Filipino mobility was the prospect of permanent residency (Polanco, 2016). In contrast, Mexican workers often fell into global work in Canada and only became aware of the possibility of permanent residency once they were in the country.

From the perspective of workers, one of the limitations of temporary migrant worker programmes is that they offer employers heightened opportunities to be highly selective during recruitment. They have a reserve army of global workers from whom they can select their preferred workers. This is not the case with domestic recruitment, including among undocumented migrants. In a market saturated for temporary labour, sending states compete to supply their nationals to global employers, and, practically, employers benefit from a highly tailored workforce (Polanco, 2017). Those countries best equipped to perform this task (in this case, the Philippines) win the race to command the international market for temporary labour. Countries with less sophisticated systems for supplying temporary workers (in this case, Mexico) are less equipped to compete, though it is workers who live with the consequences of these dynamics.

Critical reminiscences about better times

People compare themselves not only to others but also to a more ‘favoured past’ (Slutskaya et al, 2016: 175). Given the institutional barriers to upward mobility in guest-worker schemes, many participants framed their time in the US nostalgically. They speculated that their illegal status facilitated their ability to socially reproduce: they were free to take on numerous jobs and could circulate within the labour market.2 This theme came up when they described what they lost when they returned to Mexico and during their time in Canada.

They talked about the difficulties they faced when they were deported to Mexico. As Tito explained: ‘You get used to living better, having a car. You can have a house, even though you pay rent, but you still live peacefully. And in Mexico, no, no, you can’t do that…. My children suffered a lot in Mexico. They didn’t like it’. As Miguel echoed: ‘The first few years, living here in Mexico, was… it was hard…. Yeah, and even my son would say to me, ‘Daddy’, he’d say, ‘when are we going back to Chicago?’ He’d say, ‘I want to go back to Chicago’’.

One problem of returning ‘home’ was that the men were denied the opportunity to make First World wages. In the West, relations of production better support the social reproduction of low-wage workers. Notwithstanding the real precarity faced by those in the bottom tiers of the labour market, their labour generally allows them to provide for the daily and intergenerational needs of their families that comparable employment in the South does not afford (Thai, 2014), especially when viewed through a transnational social lens. Take Fito’s description:

They [my wife and children] wanted to go back [to the US], and because Mexico is expensive. In Mexico, you can’t go to McDonald’s that easily. There [in the US] you go to McDonald’s, no problem. But here you can’t. But they had gotten used to those little things, the let’s go to a restaurant, a buffet. And here, in Mexico, no. Only on birthdays or something like that. Special.

Although they worked in parallel tiers in the American and Mexican labour markets, Mexican workers in the US enjoyed a materially improved life. In instrumental terms, migration allowed them to fulfil the provider role and, in turn, enjoy a positive sense of masculinity (Choi and Li, 2021: 642). In contrast, in Mexico, they were unable to provide for the ‘little things’ (like a trip to a buffet) and felt they had few prospects. This sentiment extended beyond outings. According to Felipe:

I built a house [with my earnings in the US]. It cost a lot of money to finish it, and I said, ‘Well, now I have no money left’. And I said to my wife, ‘What are we going to do?’ She told me, go and work in the fields. Find work in a restaurant. But I don’t like that. I know how to speak English. I don’t want to be working in a kitchen for nothing. I can work in something else…. I want to be higher, not lower.

The inability to find suitable work in Mexico reflected an inability to convert the migration experience into relevant capital. Many of my participants felt that gaining access to the US, learning English, navigating the labour market, and being upwardly mobile should have bestowed them with more currency in Mexico. But it often did not. Most did not accrue institutional cultural capital in the US in the form of credentials that would facilitate labour-market prospects. Many built social networks in the US (prospective social capital), but these networks were generally not leveraged to create opportunities in Mexico. Although some could accrue economic capital, their funds were often depleted quickly, as the case of Felipe’s house illustrates.

In fact, their time in the US may have cost them, by giving them an embodied cultural capital that marked them as ‘non-Mexicans’. Some participants (especially those who spent long periods in the US) described the challenges they faced in being marked ‘Others’ in their only country of legal belonging. Manuel explained, ‘When I came back here to my country [Mexico], yeah, the people [pause], everything changed for me. Everything changed. No, [pause], I was [pause], my Spanish was too much [pause]. I spoke Spanglish. People would make fun of me. They’d say, ‘Oh, look at this pocho’’.

‘Pocho’ is a pejorative term used to describe an Americanised Mexican or a Mexican who lacks knowledge of Mexican culture and/or fluency in Spanish. Some participants reported that Mexican employers denied them employment because they sensed they had become too accustomed to earning higher wages and would be unsatisfied (read: disgruntled) with Mexican work and employment conditions. Although they had accumulated resources in the US, these resources were not convertible to relevant capital.

Nostalgic accounts of time spent in the US could be read as performances, arguably romanticised ones. For instance, participants also recalled the fear they’d experienced living as ‘illegal’ migrants in the US. Miguel stated, ‘Living like an illegal is like you don’t exist…. You’re always worried that they’re going to deport you’. Simon echoed Miguel: ‘You live in fear. If you’re out in the street, or at the movies, or at the mall, you’re always living in fear of la migra’. Josue recalled:

Living illegal is hard…. You get up early in the morning, and you go to work, but you don’t know if you’re going to run into a police officer somewhere. Or you run through a red light, they stop you, they take away your car, and you don’t have a licence or insurance. You don’t know if you’ll see your kid again. Then it’s over.

Thus, despite their emphasis on the benefits of the US, participants found it hard to live in a deportation regime.

Since the 1990s, the US has been at the forefront of instituting a deportation regime to manage migration. This regime, which removes those considered undesirable, is facilitated by amendments to immigration legislation that have expanded the range of offences eligible for deportation, including traffic and immigration violations (Dingeman and Rumbaut, 2010); Golash-Boza, 2016). By casting a wide net on deportable offences and shrinking discretionary powers and judicial reviews (Maginot, 2019: 513), this regime has been highly effective in facilitating removals (Hagan et al, 2008). Over six million non-citizens have been deported from the US since 1996 (Ceciliano-Navarro and Golash-Boza, 2021). These programmes have been described as ‘gendered, racial removal programs’ that allow the US to rid itself of ‘working-class, brown men’ assumed to be inherent threats to the polity and nation (Golash-Boza and Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2013: 272).

Within this political terrain, most of my participants were expelled. The prospect of migrating legally to Canada as a guest worker thus became quite appealing. As Jose [pseudonym] explained: ‘What I most liked was the experiences I was going to have there. That I could go legally. That I was going to have benefits. I was going to have rights as a worker. That all of those things were going to be favourable for me’. But in Canada, unlike the US, Mexican migrants were explicitly denied labour mobility under the regulatory conditions of the Low-Skilled Stream. They had few prospects for moving up the restaurant hierarchy or maximising earnings by working multiple jobs. The one prospect they had – permanent residency – they were unlikely to attain.

As noted, Canadian employers have a strong preference for hiring and nominating Filipino migrants. But Canada also prioritises higher-status migrants. There are limits to the number of annual nominations the provinces and territories can place under provincial nominee programmes, and specific requirements (related to education and language, for example) limit prospects for low-capital migrants. Indeed, statistics show that existing immigration programmes ‘make it difficult for individuals with lower levels of education to qualify for permanent residence or transition from temporary status’. Almost 75% of Mexican permanent residents in Canada have at least some post-secondary education (Van Haren and Masferrer, 2019). Within the context of regulated inclusion, many have few pathways to legal incorporation.

When they discussed their futures, most Mexican migrants said they would prefer to return to the US. Many felt they had more opportunities in the US, including employment prospects and social networks. But the increasingly militarised nature of the US border, and the harsh penalties associated with illegal border crossings, were significant barriers. They continued to consider their options in a global landscape that grants few opportunities to low-capital migrants.

The visa requirement for Mexicans travelling to Canada was lifted in December 2016. Since then, the Mexican migrants I spoke to may have undertaken ‘legal’ migrations to Canada under tourist visas or the Low-Skilled Stream. Some confessed that upon returning from Canada, they looked into employment under Canada’s long-standing Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, though most had no experience in agriculture and did not qualify. What is clear is that many felt the need to move, to continue onward, suggesting a need for longitudinal research in this area.

Onward, reactive migration

Temporary labour schemes do more than offset supposed labour market shortages in selected occupations. They socially reproduce low-wage workers through precarious migration regimes. Employers in the US benefitted from access to a young, eager, able-bodied, and undocumented workforce with flexible mobility. In Canada, these same workers were secure in their immigration status but had little flexibility when it came to employment contracts. In both instances, transnational migration regimes kept workers – literally and metaphorically – in their place, either at a specific worksite or, more generally, at the margins of the service economy and incapable of converting the experience into cultural, mobility, or legal capital. Ultimately, labour precarity allows the sector to maintain low labour costs and ensure profits.

Returning to the concept of ‘multiple migration’, I propose that migrants such as Fito engage in a variant of onward migration. Unlike stepwise international migration (Paul, 2011; 2017) in which subjects migrate their way up a hierarchy of destinations, Fito moved to Canada, which he considered lower than the US in his hierarchy of potential destinations. His was not a skilled form of migration, open-ended and meant to achieve life goals (like global multiple migration, Choi, 2022) but rather an unplanned, reactive form of migration. Unlike onward migration, in which mobility is a coping strategy – a ‘reaction to the circumstances migrants find in the destination country’ (Ramos, 2018: 1854) – Fito’s migration was truly reactive and precipitated by deportation and his need to continue onward to Canada. This is not to suggest that onward migration is not reactive – indeed, it is often described as such; rather, his case highlights differential access to power in control over mobility and thus the need to be reactive. Different migration and labour regimes lead to differential forms of inclusion that shape gendered identity in distinct ways, depending on the migrating group.

Filipino migrants were branded racially as model migrants (Guevarra, 2014), and Mexican workers navigated a social landscape in which they had to unwittingly compete against them for their employers’ nomination. Filipino migrants are gendered feminine by migration apparatuses, and their higher levels of cultural capital (that is, middle-class subjectivity and habitus) help them excel at interactive work. In contrast, working-class Mexican men are regarded comparatively as adequate for physical tasks but not ideal for interactive occupations. The Philippines’ highly-sophisticated migration apparatus socialises Filipino migrant workers to perform the ideal migrant subjectivity – the ‘Great Filipino Worker’ (Guevarra, 2010) – which endears them to employers. But their social reproduction as a highly esteemed low-wage workforce displaces working-class Mexican men, deemed less desirable because of their perceived lack of cultural and migration capital.

Beyond the sending context, Canada places significant value on human capital and, increasingly, language capital. Within this governance terrain, many of the Mexican workers in my study would not have qualified for successful nomination even if their employer were inclined to advance one. Although some migrants may have been aware of the structural controls that shaped their immigration outcomes (Fito repeatedly described Canada as a ‘liar’), they directed their frustrations at their Filipino coworkers. These conditions are the unfortunate consequences of Canada’s governance structures.

Most of my participants spent years if not decades living in the US. How they perceived their work in Canada, and how this perception shaped their masculine identities, was part of an ongoing negotiation between three countries and particular times and places (Cohen, 2006; Kukreja, 2021b). In a global context where migrants often engage in multiple (labour) migrations, we must pay attention not only to the sending and host contexts but also to the range of global trajectories these migrants make – the multinational migrations (Paul and Yeoh, 2021) – and to the dominant values and norms that shape these subjectivities. We must be attuned to a contemporary moral framework in which little respect is afforded to those engaged in less-skilled work (Slutskaya et al, 2016: 168).

Notes

1

Often this includes young women who are considered docile, nimble-fingered, and obedient.

2

Although many were irregular migrants in the United States, they all reported that working undocumented in a range of cities and states (from Chicago, to California, to Arizona) as ‘illegal’ migrants was relatively easy. Either employers did not request social security numbers, or they used somebody else’s documents. Among my participants, the latter was the more common practice.

Funding

This research was supported through a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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    • Export Citation
  • Choi, S. (2022) Global multiple migration: class-based mobility capital of elite Chinese gay men, Sociology, 56(5): 94666. doi: 10.1177/00380385211073237

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    • Export Citation
  • Choi, S. and Li, S. (2021) Migration, service work, and masculinity in the Global South: private security guards in post-socialist China, Gender, Work & Organization, 28(6): 64155. doi: 10.1111/gwao.12605

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cohen, D. (2006) From peasant to worker: migration, masculinity, and the making of Mexican workers in the US, International Labor and Working-Class History, 69(1): 81103. doi: 10.1017/s0147547906000056

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cross, S. and Bagilhole, B. (2002) Girls’ jobs for the boys? Men, masculinity and non-traditional occupations, Gender, Work & Organization, 9(2): 20426. doi: 10.1111/1468-0432.00156

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    • Export Citation
  • Dingeman, K. and Rumbaut, R. (2010) The immigration-crime nexus and post-deportation experiences: en/countering stereotypes in Southern California and El Salvador, University of La Verne Law Review, 31(2): 363402.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Elson, D. and Pearson, R. (1981) ‘Nimble fingers make cheap workers’: an analysis of women’s employment in Third World export manufacturing, Feminist Review, 7(1): 87107. doi: 10.2307/1394761

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Erel, U. (2010) Migrating cultural capital: Bourdieu in migration studies, Sociology, 44(4): 64260. doi: 10.1177/0038038510369363

  • Fernandez-Kelly, M.P. (1983) For We Are Sold, I and My People: Women and Industry in Mexico’s Frontier, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Giralt, R. (2017) Onward migration as a coping strategy? Latin Americans moving from Spain to the UK post-2008, Population, Space and Place, 23(3): e2017. doi: 10.1002/psp.2017

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Golash-Boza, T. (2016) ‘Negative credentials’, ‘foreign-earned’ capital, and call centers: Guatemalan deportees’ precarious reintegration, Criminal Justice, Borders and Citizenship Research Paper No. 2786520, Citizenship Studies. doi: 10.1080/13621025.2016.1158357

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Golash-Boza, T. and Hondagneu-Sotelo, P. (2013) Latino immigrant men and the deportation crisis: a gendered racial removal program, Latino Studies, 11(3): 27192. doi: 10.1057/lst.2013.14

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Guatemalan deportees’ precarious reintegration, Citizenship Studies, 20(3–4): 32641. doi: 10.1080/13621025.2016.1158357

  • Guevarra, A. (2010) Marketing Dreams, Manufacturing Heroes: The Transnational Labor Brokering of Filipino Workers, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Guevarra, A. (2014) Supermaids: the racial branding of global Filipino care labour, in B. Anderson and I. Shutes (eds) Migration and Care Labour: Theory, Policy and Politics, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 13050. doi: 10.1057/9781137319708_8

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hagan, J., Eschbach, K. and Rodriguez, N. (2008) US deportation policy, family separation, and circular migration, International Migration Review, 42(1): 6488. doi: 10.1111/j.1747-7379.2007.00114.x

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Geraldina Polanco McMaster University, Canada

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