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Mexico wants emigres to create jobs back home

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SAN SALVADOR EL SECO, Mexico — Jaime Lucero made a fortune in the United States after leaving his home in rural Mexico and crossing the border at the age of 18.

But the soft-spoken entrepreneur said he would rather his countrymen not emulate his rags-to-riches emigre story.

"I'd prefer they stay at home," he said. "All the time now, you're hearing of tragedies along the border."

Lucero, 44, washed dishes as an illegal immigrant after first arriving in New York before starting a hugely successful East Coast trucking company that now delivers millions of imported garments a year to retailers.

Now he has become the first official "godfather" in an ambitious program organized by the administration of President Vicente Fox. The "Adopt a Microregion" program seeks to stem the exodus of Mexican workers to the United States by getting successful emigres to create jobs at home.

Lucero's Gold & Silver company is building a garment factory centered in a converted 18th century hacienda in San Salvador El Seco, 130 miles southeast of Mexico City.

With an estimated $20 million investment, in two years the company hopes to employ 7,000 people in outlying communities in Lucero's native state of Puebla stitching women's sportswear to be sold in the United States.

"The idea is to create opportunities so that young people today do not have to go (north), to keep future generations from having to go," Juan Hernandez, who heads Fox's office for Mexicans living abroad, told reporters given a tour of the San Salvador El Seco operation Friday.

The government has identified 90 "microregions," poor communities across the country that send laborers north of the border but that still have enough people at home to sustain a project, be it manufacturing clothing, laying down roads or constructing heath clinics.

It hopes that the development zones can generate 2,500 jobs each.

In Lucero's case, the government is only providing training assistance. Elsewhere it is offering three-for-one matching funds, with each emigre dollar being matched by one each from federal, state and municipal governments.

Some 5 million Mexicans work in the United States illegally, according to rights groups. The dollars they send home, along with those of Mexicans legally in the United States, are a major lifeline to the Mexican economy.

Hernandez said Mexicans in the United States have responded to calls for help from the Fox government, which took office in December ending 71 years of unbroken rule by one party.

Remittances sent home totaled $2.1 billion in the first three months of 2001, up 42 percent from the same period a year earlier, he said.

But illegal immigration has long been a thorn in the side of U.S.-Mexican relations. Both Fox and President Bush are seeking ways to stem the illegal flow, while meeting U.S. companies' demand for cheap labor.

An estimated 1.5 million Mexicans try to cross the border illegally every year but many are captured and sent back and others die by dehydration, exposure or other causes while trying. Last year 491 undocumented Mexican migrants died along the 2,000-mile border, and at least 157 have perished so far this year, including 14 who succumbed to dehydration and exposure in the Arizona desert in May.

Repairing a wall at the San Salvador El Seco Hacienda, Antonio Sanchez said he was glad to have the opportunity to work at home. "It's safer," he said. "Going to the other side you put yourself in a lot of risks now."