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What clearly does work is changing hearts and minds about family size and the use of birth control, a decidedly grassroots phenomenon. And that’s exactly what PMC does by creating popular soap opera-type radio shows. The model is Mexico, where Miguel Sabido, vice president of the major TV network Televisa, created a series of telenovelas with family planning themes. From 1977 to 1986, when these programs were on the air, Mexico experienced a 34 percent decline in population growth and, in 1986, won the United Nations Population Prize. In 1975, the average woman had 3.5 children; by 1985, it was 2.4.
A spokesperson for US Aid for International Development, speaking on background, calls Mexico “a graduated country.” The agency stopped working there in 1999, after handing its family planning programs over to the Mexican government. “That’s one of our success stories,” the spokesperson said. “As in Turkey, Indonesia, and Morocco, the government became an active partner with us and the result was a significant drop in fertility rates.”
The drop in Mexican fertility rates—to just over replacement level—would seem to be an interesting talking point in the current immigration debate, but it is rarely mentioned. One imagines it would turn our elected representatives into enthusiastic supporters of production aid to family planning soap operas, but that hasn’t happened.
When PMC launched it Sabido-type soap opera program in Ethiopia, the country had a five-year supply of oral contraceptives gathering dust in a warehouse. Only six percent of the population used any modern method of birth control and the birth rate was 5.4. Now birth control is in demand and, in the most populous Amhara region, fertility has dropped a full child, from 5.4 to 4.3.
A TV soap opera broadcast in India in the early 1980s, “Hum Log,” had very high ratings and a similar success story. A study showed that 71 percent of viewers learned from watching the show that family size should be limited. A second TV soap show, “Humraahi,” became the top-rated program on Indian television, with 230 million viewers. Again, surveys showed changing attitudes on such questions as the proper age for marriage and women in the workforce.
The same approach, in cooperation with Save the Children, has also worked well in reducing AIDS incidence among Indian truck drivers. PMC has spread its TV-driven message around the world, and works in 15 countries with offices in Brazil, Ethiopia, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mexico, Niger, Nigeria, the Philippines, Rwanda, and Sudan. Government cooperation varies, but the government of Ethiopia has provided funding and Sudan offered free airtime on state-controlled TV.
Other factors not recognized in the heat of an election year are also slowing immigration-related population growth. In Bridgeport, Connecticut, music clubs fill up on weekends with Brazilian customers intent on dancing to the music of one of their favorite bands—Pink Floyd. There were only an estimated 35 Brazilian families in Bridgeport in the early 1980s, but now there are many thousands. Brazilians have opened restaurants, painting businesses, and travel agencies, and their arrival has added spice to the city’s beat.
But immigration and naturalization officials noticed a significant drop in new Brazilian arrivals after 1992, dovetailing with an economic downturn in the US. Now that pattern may be repeating, as Brazilians (especially illegal immigrants) face stronger enforcement and a recession that makes it harder to find work. Some can’t renew driver’s licenses, making it a challenge to keep a job in a battered economy.
Brazilians in strongholds such as Newark, Danbury, and Boston say they’re pulling up stakes and making the reverse trek back to their homeland. The Boston-based Brazilian Immigrant Center estimates that 5,000 returning Brazilians left Massachusetts in 2007.
Arizona (where one in 10 workers is a Hispanic immigrant) passed a tough new law that went into effect January 1, slapping businesses that knowingly employ the undocumented with business license suspensions of up to 10 days. Second-time offenders lose their licenses entirely. The law is considered so draconian by illegal Mexican immigrants in Arizona (some with long-held employment) that many are reportedly “self-deporting” back to Mexico.
“The number returning to Mexico is difficult to calculate, but there is no question that many families are leaving, according to Mexican government officials, local community leaders, and immigrants themselves,” reports the Arizona Republic. In 2007, the Mexican consulate processed 16,500 applications for passports, which nationals will need when they return to Mexico.
Filling Economic Gaps
But there’s another side to the immigration debate. Supporters of maintaining current high levels say that a constant influx is necessary to keep the US economically competitive. Without immigrants picking onions in California or cleaning gutters in Connecticut, they say, those jobs would go begging.