“I get on Zoom for an early call to meet some clients in Massachusetts and say, ‘How about a cup of joe?’ The guy’s eyes popped out of his head,” says Fernando Figueroa, a 42-year-old programmer in the city of Monterrey, in northeastern Mexico, holding his hands to his face as a measure of his client’s eyes. “They didn’t expect a Mexican to speak like that.”
That’s because Figueroa is more American than Mexican, in some senses. “I don’t feel Mexican,” he says. “But I know I’m not American because I don’t have that piece of paper.” Born in Mexico City, he moved to Michigan at the age of nine and grew up in Detroit. After earning an associate’s degree in hospitality management, he lived in Chicago, working as a senior manager at The Cheesecake Factory. Though he had a work permit, Figueroa was deported to Mexico three years ago after what he calls an “unfortunate situation.” It was just weeks before an interview to regularize his status in the U.S.
“I can still picture the color of the sky in southwest Detroit,” he says. “I’m a grown man, but I cried. I felt like my life was over.” But three years after his deportation, Figueroa draws a salary double average in Mexico and lives in the country’s highest-income postal code. “I’m rockin’ it,” he says. Despite his earlier misfortunes, Figueroa seems to have found the “American Dream” — south of the Rio Grande, as one of Mexico’s new class of offshore coders.
Programming jobs are seen as abundant, stable, and well-paid — a surefire entry into the upper-middle class both in the U.S. as well as Mexico. But coding didn’t come to Mexico by chance. The outsourcing of software engineering is the latest iteration of a century-old pattern of U.S. industries moving labor-intensive operations to Mexico. Multinational companies profit from moving stable, middle-class work abroad. And in Mexico, return migrants — who are often fully bilingual and have experience working for U.S. companies — make particularly attractive candidates for this “nearsourced” work.
For many Americans, Figueroa’s nostalgic Detroit skyline represents the decline of the U.S. blue-collar workforce: a vista of factories made empty by the low wages of Asian sweatshops and the maquiladoras of the U.S.-Mexico border. Though Mexico’s first free economic zones were established in the 1930s, the pace really picked up in the 1990s, when more than 2,000 new assembly plants — 96% U.S. owned and operated — opened in Mexico. The economic upheaval of NAFTA, along with the 1994 crash of the peso, fed these new labor-hungry maquiladoras with thousands of Mexicans seeking wage labor. Those who could not get (or tolerate) the harsh conditions of the maquiladoras turned their sights north. An unprecedented number of migrants headed to the United States between 1990 and 2000 — over 12 million.
Over the following decade, that migration flow switched directions. Between deportations, anti-immigrant politics, and the post-2008 economic recession, Mexican migration to the U.S. fell to net zero by 2012. More Mexicans are now returning home than emigrating from it. Like Figueroa, the majority of these return migrants are men between the ages of 25 and 40. Over three million are deportees. Also like him, many migrated with their parents as children. Educated in the U.S. and inclined to speak English over Spanish, they have few, if any, memories of their country of birth.
As migration flows reversed, American companies keen to take advantage of the growing bilingual labor force began to open offshore customer service centers. Between 2007 and 2010 — when the United States deported over one million Mexicans — call centers in Mexico more than doubled, increasing from 8,631 to 18,701. Advertising on the bulletin boards of migrant shelters and through targeted advertisements on Facebook, companies like AT&T and American Express became the primary entry point into the Mexican labor force. Some U.S. immigration enforcement authorities even point new deportees their way. They also opened in other countries that saw large numbers of deportations from the U.S., such as Jamaica, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where the New Yorker reported that call centers are nicknamed “Homieland,” for the presence of deported gang members. In Mexico City, the downtown Tabacalera neighborhood where thousands of phone operators take calls for everything from Dish to Domino’s Pizza, is known as “Little L.A.”
Like manufacturing before them and programming afterward, outsourced call centers capitalize on “geoarbitrage” — taking advantage of geographical inequalities to increase profit margins. However, relative to traditional call center locations such as India and the Philippines, nearshoring to Latin America allows U.S. companies to align time zones. But return migrants offer even more advantages. Beyond solving the “accent problem,” they can make small talk about sports teams and highways and code-switch between vernacular variants of English — as well as take calls in Spanish. Researchers Amado Alarcón and Josiah Heyman point out that locating call centers in “bilingual locations” enables companies to treat bilingualism not as a skill that needs to be compensated but as a free “ethnic attribute.”
Call centers are a way for American companies to continue taking advantage of immigrants’ labor even after they are expelled from the country — and for an even lower price. The crowded, noisy workplaces are known for high turnover and environments rife with addiction and depression. Still, both The Guardian and the Los Angeles Times have called the jobs a “lifeline” for recent deportees. While low by American standards, the pay is higher than Mexico’s average, especially for work that isn’t hard on the body.
The workplace can also be a reprieve from Mexican society at large: a space where having tattoos doesn’t make one’s coworkers presume gang affiliation, where speaking English is not spurned, and where employees can find their first sense of community after the isolating experience of return. “I really enjoyed meeting a whole bunch of people like me,” says Miriam Alvarez, a returnee who worked at a call center before becoming a web developer. She was brought to the U.S. as a baby and returned during secondary school. “I could speak English or Spanglish and didn’t have to find the precise word to say a complete phrase in Spanish — that part totally rocked. But the calls, not so much.” While she says the tasks were mostly easy — dealing with billing or small technical issues — they could be challenging when you got the “occasional racist.”
“There was no way I was going to work at a call center,” says Figueroa.
With call centers out of the question, Figueroa found HolaCode, a five-month coding bootcamp in Mexico City for deportees and returnees from the United States as well as migrants from other countries. Where call centers pin flyers to bulletin boards at migrant shelters, promising jobs with decent pay, coffee, and cookies, HolaCode recruits by standing outside call centers, offering an information session with pizza, beer, and the chance to get a job that pays 300% more than answering the phone. Out of all those perks, however, Figueroa says that HolaCode’s main appeal was the opportunity to feel less alone — the same conviviality that others find at call centers. “I got more excited about the fact that there were people out there like me than about the actual coding,” he says.
Founded in 2017, HolaCode was conceived as a social enterprise. According to its co-CEO Aída Chávez Zapata, HolaCode aims to meet demand both in Mexico and worldwide for English-speaking coders by capitalizing on the “social remittance” of return migrants — the idea that they bring back more than savings in dollars. Chávez, who speaks British-accented English with a Silicon Valley vocabulary, explains that the program “disrupts anti-migrant narratives” and “hacks social mobility.” While HolaCode takes advantage of the same competencies as call centers, it does so with the explicit goal of building new skills that will provide return migrants with better work opportunities and upward mobility.
The young, educated, bilingual, and bicultural return migrants that the program serves may seem to occupy a privileged position relative to Mexican society at large, but they face a particular set of structural barriers. One of the most significant is the process of validating one’s U.S. schooling. Alvarez ended up studying at HolaCode because two universities told her that her school records legally referred to two different people: her Mexican school records have both her mother’s and father’s surname, while her American school records have only her mother’s. Meanwhile, Figueroa’s associate’s degree cannot be revalidated because it has no equivalent in Mexico. One of HolaCode’s most important “hacks,” then, is hacking higher education in a system that has no space for returning migrants.
Alvarez enjoyed the program because she likes puzzles. “Coding is finding a more robust and agile way to do something,” she says. “It was rough because of the long days,” says Figueroa. “Personally, I would be programming for 14 or 15 hours, Monday to Friday, 10 or eleven on Saturday. But I had no choice.”
When Figueroa finished HolaCode, he didn’t find work right away. After six months of job hunting, a Mexican startup offered him a job — for no pay. He took it to gain experience. After that, he got a job with a Mexican startup that paid him $720 (15,000 pesos) per month. Figueroa said that was less than what a convenience store employee [as a floor manager] made.
“Mexican startups want to be like startups in the U.S., but, at the end of the day, in my opinion, they just can’t be,” says Figueroa. “They treated me in a way I wasn’t used to. I put in a lot of hours, out of a desire to move forward. But I got to a point where I’d learned what I was going to learn, and they were not going to give me more money, but they were used to my work ethic, so they were pushing me. I went on vacation with my parents, and they were calling me the whole time.”
“In Mexico, all the best programming jobs are working for American or European companies,” says Lonnie McRorey, CEO of the Tijuana-based nearshore software engineering company Framework Science. For Mexican programmers, working for an outsourced firm typically yields double the salary of a domestic job: around $3,000 (60,000 pesos) per month, compared to $1,500 (30,000 pesos).
For Figueroa, finding a job with an international company came with an advantage beyond stellar pay: a sense of relief at returning to a workplace culture he was accustomed to. In high-paying, multinational tech companies, return migrants like Figueroa are able to benefit from fulfilling U.S. cultural expectations in the workplace, habits such as punctuality, direct communication, and expecting to be rewarded for work well done. “In Mexico, we go in circles,” adds Chávez. “If you say something in the direct, American way, people might get upset.”
Figueroa is now a senior front-end engineer for Globant, a multinational software development company, founded in Buenos Aires, headquartered in Luxembourg, and primarily serving clients in the United States and the United Kingdom, as part of a large-scale project run from New York. He does face one setback: he has been offered the opportunity to attend conferences and training, as well as to do programming jobs, in the United States. But as a deportee banned from entering the United States, he cannot go.
No matter their skill or success, the U.S. migration system remains a glass ceiling for offshore return migrant programmers. While coding offers one version of the “better life” that their parents once sought in the United States, outsourcing is still fundamentally based on geoarbitrage. A Mexican coder’s salary of $3,000 per month pales in comparison to that of a U.S. citizen “digital nomad,” who could be working from Mexico City for the very same company while making $7,500 per month, the average salary of a Galvanize / Hack Reactor graduate. Additionally, Figueroa says, offshore employees of U.S. companies cannot leave Mexico because of tax restrictions; companies track their IP addresses. U.S. citizen coders have no such mobility restrictions. For multinational companies and U.S. citizens, borders and international divisions of labor are sources of extra profits; for the rest, they are restrictions on mobility and opportunities.
Ultimately, what seems like a win-win for coders and companies can only last as long as coding is high in demand, short in supply, and well-paid in the United States. Manufacturing and call centers have shown that technology evolves, cheapens, and automates. While both industries initially promised high salaries, both have stagnated over time, as their jobs have become devalued. Between 1994 and 2014, real wages in Mexico stayed the same, and, after having been outsourced, both manufacturing and call centers are now in the process of becoming automated. It’s estimated that, by 2025, robots will conduct 30% of manufacturing tasks in Mexico, compared to 10% globally, leading to further declines in wages. According to McRorey, call centers are part of this trend; he says they’re “dying” because of automation. With advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence, so, too, are aspects of coding becoming automated.
Coders like Figueroa are benefiting from programming’s high demand and high pay, but it is a sweet spot nevertheless, on multinational companies’ terms. As the moment crests, programming’s social mobility “hack” might simply turn out to be old outsourcing with new lingo.