Something more than the idea of swaying palms and balmy mid-January breezes impels that run for the border. Some go to revive memories of favorite vacation venues. Some restore family ties and search out ancestral roots. Others may have enjoyed school, military, or work assignments abroad, and still others may have pined away for the days of the Peace Corps. The sentimental idea of an easier, simpler life, coupled with romantic notions of expatriate life, sends forth a powerful siren call. And some simply find new challenges in the adventure of discovering and flourishing in a culture not their own.
Some American lawyers find the prospect of retiring a daunting proposition unless they relocate to an area far from home, just because they can’t resist the lure of the practice. The temptation to practice just a little bit of law fades in the light of life abroad, but packing up and moving to any foreign country requires far more planning and effort than heading for the golf courses of Florida or the Arizona desert.
Life abroad can spell anything from fulfilled dreams of social success and enhanced quality of life to head-in-the-hands baffling frustration and shattered dreams. The refrain of “Something tells me we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” rings in every expatriate’s mind more than a few times. There are days when adjustment to a new culture far away from the shores of the American homeland can make the lousiest day any lawyer ever faced in the practice seem like a day at the beach.
Along the border, distinctions blur: The U.S. is like Mexico, and Mexico’s like the U.S. But drive two hours south of El Paso, Laredo, or Brownsville, and you’re in another world.
Those 1.5 million or so Americans living in Mexico are scattered throughout the country. While the largest number live in Mexico City, some opt for expat havens like Chapala, thirty minutes south of Guadalajara, and San Miguel de Allende. But there are smaller colonies of foreigners gathered in and around Los Cabos, Alamos, Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta, Patzcuaro, Morelia, Cuernavaca, Acapulco, Oaxaca, Merida, and Cancun. Gringos (an informal non-pejorative term applied to those speaking what must sound like Greek to native Spanish speakers) have long been part of Mexican culture. Even tiny two-burro burgs may harbor a gringo or two. Immediately after World War II, many rediscovered Mexico as a relaxing and economical place to study on the G.I. bill. Mexico’s appeal remains strong through its close ties and easy proximity to its northern neighbor. Or as Mexican President Porfirio Diaz (1876-1880 and 1884-1911) put it, “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.”
The main issues facing Americans who opt to move to Mexico are immigration, health care, money, and their stuff.
Mexico’s immigration law, administered by the Instituto Nacional de Migracion (https://www.gob.mx/inm) is fairly liberal, with the usual categories for refugees, religious folk, students, investors, dependents, and workers, but the only category worth mentioning here applies to retirees. Mexico grants retirees annually renewable residency permits upon a showing of monthly income of a little over $1,500 or a decent amount of money in the bank. Permanent residency commands a somewhat higher threshold. (See Chapala Law https://www.chapalalaw.com/immigration-2/ for more details.) And just as in the U.S., those wanting to work legally in Mexico must obtain a work permit from immigration.
Health care is available in broad variety from a $2 quick consultation at a walk-in clinic with prices for routine services such as testing blood pressure, removing stitches, and patching up skinned knees to world-class care at world-class prices. The Mexican national health care system, IMSS (http://imss.gob.mx/) is available to any foreigner legally resident in the country for an annual fee of about $400 as is Seguro Popular (http://www.seguropopular.org/), a program intended for the truly poor but available to anyone for an extra charge. Both programs are oversubscribed, lacking resources, and perhaps not the best option except in the direst circumstances. Private health insurance is another option, and there are a number of insurance plans providing various levels of coverage, both domestically and internationally, at costs considerably less than what similar coverage would cost in the U.S. I pay about $2,500 a year for private health insurance. Health care is so amazingly affordable that many opt to simply pay out of pocket. A friend’s TURP operation set him back about $1,700 for all medical, hospital, and drug fees. A dental implant and crown can be had for just under $2,000. Medicines, except for antibiotics and controlled substances, are frequently available over the counter.
Converting greenbacks to Mexican pesos presents new challenges for many. The ubiquity of ATMs makes funds accessible, but sooner or later every expatriate faces the need to open a bank account in a foreign country. Some banks have correspondent institutions abroad, which can simplify the process. The finer points of wire transfers, dynamic currency conversion (DCC), and currency exchange rates become topics of everyday conversation. Banking exercises which were within the ability of the average seventh-grader in the States can tax even the most seasoned lawyers abroad at first. Checks have become remnants of another era, but credit cards are making rapid inroads into what was once a cash-only economy. Even a few vendors at organic markets now accept Visa and Mastercard.
A 16% sales tax is added to the price of nearly everything, which makes Mexican prices seem unusually elevated to those who haven’t caught on that the tax is already included in the sticker price. Whenever I go to the U.S., I’m amazed at how cheap everything is until the cashier adds in the tax, which has made me reconsider that purchase a time or two. A $32 monthly Telmex package buys free calling throughout Mexico and the rest of the world, two phone lines, and 50 MB Internet. Cable Internet will set you back about $200 a year. $8 buys unlimited calls throughout Mexico, the U.S., and Canada and a modest data plan for a cell phone for 26 days.
Foreigners with temporary and permanent residency status are a granted a one-time opportunity to import their used household goods and personal effects, tax free (https://consulmex.sre.gob.mx/mcallen/index.php/documentacion/certyleg/cer-menaje). Some 22 years ago, when I moved here, my moving costs amounted to about $6,000, but today’s escalating moving costs may not make this a worthwhile pursuit for many. Until a foreigner becomes a full-fledged permanent resident, a U.S.-plated car can be temporarily imported, but the car must be removed from the country when its owner becomes a permanent resident.
Household help in Mexico is not just for the wealthy, and it’s more than just a convenience. Householders are responsible for keeping their side of the street swept, garbage is personally handed over to the trash collectors, and someone has to be home for gas, bottled water, and assorted deliveries. Salaries may seem low to foreigners, who have to be constantly reminded that the employer’s obligation doesn’t stop on payday. A very labor-oriented labor code means that paid holidays and vacations, sick leave, medical expenses, maternity leave, Christmas bonuses, and severance pay are part of the package.
Now, what about that reduced cost of living? That $64,000 question hinges upon location, lifestyle, and expectations. Food, medical expenses, and services are less expensive, but that savings can be offset by the price of hard goods. Count on paying more for electronics, imported goods, and books. That New York Times bestseller, whether it’s in English or in Spanish, can come with a hefty price tag, but the cost of season tickets to the local symphony can be a genuine bargain.
Some foreigners create outposts of their homelands, hanging only with other landsmen, caring more about their local chapter of Democrats Abroad than the latest ukase of city government, unable to name the governor of the state in which they reside, wondering why Mexicans get so worked up every year over Fiestas Patrias, and others embrace a new-found culture, which means more than just learning the language. Futbol, the Virgin of Guadalupe, malinchismo, Mexicanidad, myriad iterations of corn, and the inability to say no are all part of a culture that isn’t transmitted overnight.
Mexico’s my home, even admitting me to the ranks of its citizenry, and it’s my future.