Hard times send Latinos back across the border
By Jean Hopfensperger
The Minnesota Star Tribune (Minneapolis), May 29, 2009
A year ago, Primitivo Morales had a home in the suburbs, two children in college and two successful businesses on E. Lake Street in Minneapolis.
But the economic downturn, combined with cranked-up immigration enforcement, has driven customers away and crushed his personal finances. After 25 years in the United States, he now is reluctantly making plans to return to Mexico.
Morales, 45, is part of a trend unfolding across the state and the nation. Latinos in the prime of their work life are returning home because their dreams have collapsed along with the economy. The numbers are still relatively small, say Latino leaders, but for the first time in years, the door back to Mexico is swinging open.
'There were people up and down Lake Street a year ago; now there's nobody,'' said Morales, glancing sadly out the window of his restaurant, La Poblanita, onto the street. 'The construction workers who used to come here are gone. … And many [undocumented] people now are afraid to venture out.
'Many people have left for Mexico.''
While there is no data that precisely documents the trend, there are clear indicators that Latino communities are facing their biggest economic challenges in years. The number of Mexicans immigrating to the United States dropped by 25 percent from August 2007 to August 2008, according to recent Mexican census data. The amount of money sent home by Mexican migrants dropped by $1 billion last year, the first decline since the government began tracking it 13 years ago, according to Mexico's central bank.
In Minnesota, Latino unemployment jumped from 4.7 percent in 2006 to 7.5 percent in 2008, according to the most recent figures from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Latino leaders believe the figure is even higher today.
Clear signs of change
A visit to the Latino hubs in the Twin Cities — E. Lake Street in Minneapolis and the West Side of St. Paul — shows clear signs of change.
At the Neighborhood House in St. Paul, a community social service center, staff report a new phenomena.
'I've been an ESL [English as a Second Language] teacher five years, and this fall and winter is definitely different,' said Brenda Anfinson, sipping punch at a graduation party last month. 'People are talking a lot about getting laid off. People are talking about going home. … I've had four or five people go back to Mexico.''
Down the street at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, the Rev. Kevin Kenney says church-goers are seeking advice about whether to stay or leave. The decision is particularly painful, he said, because workers here support families back home. They feel like failures, he said.
'This week I talked to two families considering it,'' Kenney said recently. 'One didn't have [legal] papers and couldn't find a job. The other was a woman with papers, who has been here about 20 years. She was thinking of going back, but was worried whether it was the right decision for her daughter.''
On Minneapolis' E. Lake Street, store owners also report that some workers have called it quits.
'We had about six workers go back to Mexico in the past couple months,'' said Maria Lala, owner of La Mexicana grocery store. 'And some customers, too.''
Ricardo Alday, spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, said that the embassy is hearing anecdotal evidence from around the country about reverse migration, but that documenting it is difficult. One way is to count the numbers of permits issued to Mexicans returning home with large household goods, he said. But that doesn't measure immigrants who pack a few suitcases and head south.
That said, the Mexican government is monitoring school enrollment in their states that send large numbers of immigrants across the border, he said. And some of those states are 'adjusting'' their repatriation programs for returnees 'because of the strong possibility people may want to go back in bigger numbers.''
Alday, like Minnesota's Latino leaders, stressed there is no sign of a massive exodus of Mexicans. The departures reflect a new phenomena in the United States, they said, namely an anemic job market.
Minnesota is among the states with the biggest hikes in immigrant unemployment, according to a study released last month by the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan research center in Washington. Immigrants, who nationally enjoyed a 4.6 percent unemployment rate during the third quarter of 2007, faced an 11.2 percent rate the first quarter of 2009, research showed.
'Workers are thinking, 'If I don't have a job here or if I don't have a job in Mexico, what's the difference? Plus no one will harass me' '' in Mexico, said Ramon Leon, executive director of the Latino Economic Development Center in Minneapolis. 'And businesses look around and ask: 'Am I relying on a customer base that may not be here?'''
From success to struggles
Morales is among the Latino businessmen who helped transform E. Lake Street from a crime-ridden area to an ethnic business district. His restaurant and grocery store occupy the building that formerly housed the Pizza Shack, site of the 1995 murder of Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf.
Morales had been commuting to work from his home in Inver Grove Heights, which he shared with his wife and four children. Then blew in the perfect storm.
The construction trade, a major employer of Latino workers, was hit exceptionally hard by the economy. Many employers adopted stiffer identification checks. Immigration agents frequented the area. Property taxes jumped. Profits fell.
Finally last winter, Morales was forced to sell his home. He cut payroll from 35 workers to 12. Two weeks ago, he put his building up for sale.
'At least in Mexico, I wouldn't have a mortgage and property taxes,'' Morales said. 'But it's sad. I've worked so hard. This was my dream. And now it's evaporating.''
But workers such Chris Salvador, an English student at the Neighborhood House, believes Latinos should think twice about heading back.
'If the situation is not good here, it's worse in other countries,'' Salvador said. 'Here if you can't afford rent, you move in with a friend or get more jobs. My wife has three jobs. I have two. Somehow you can make it.''
Morales, however, feels he's played all his cards. He expects to open a business in Mexico and see what happens. But he's leaving his options open.
When asked if he would ever return to Minnesota, Morales shrugged: 'Who knows?''
Slump Disrupts Migration
Fewer Mexicans Are Going to U.S. and Sending Money Home
By William Booth
The Washington Post, May 29, 2009
Andocutin, Mexico — There are hundreds of sleepy little towns in Mexico just like this one. The old church is restored, but there is no priest. The roads are newly paved, but there are no cars. The homes are tidy, but there are no families inside. The doors are locked with chains.
'They are all empty. You see the streets? You don't see anybody. Because everybody is gone, and I don't know if they are ever coming back,' said Elias Caldern, 68, a retired steelworker who spent his work life in Chicago and returned to the town of his birth.
No one is leaving Andocutin on the traditional trek north to the United States, because they say there is no work for them there. Nor is anyone coming back home.
Here in the heart of Mexico, there is stark evidence that well-worn patterns of migration — the annual movement of Mexicans back and forth to the United States — have been disrupted by the global economic slump, even as the journey north has been made more difficult by tighter border controls and the recent outbreak of swine flu in Mexico.
For the first time in a generation, since officials began to tally accurate records, the Mexican government reports a dramatic, sustained decline in the number of Mexican migrants going to the United States. The most recent count found that 186,000 fewer Mexicans left for other countries in 2008, compared with the previous year, a precipitous 22 percent drop, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography.
For years, Mexico's poor have always left hardscrabble farm towns such as Andocutin to venture north for work. Caldern went, just as his father and grandfather did. It was a rite of passage for a teenager to take his first trip. During Christmas and holidays, the men came back, often as proud providers, carrying billfolds of cash and driving pickup trucks with U.S. plates. 'Life was pretty good back then,' Caldern said.
Andocutin has always survived on the two-way flow of migrant workers. For better or worse, it is the economic model for much of rural Mexico: leave, work, send money home. There are now a record 12.7 million Mexican immigrants living in the United States; one in three immigrants are now from Mexico, and half of them are undocumented. Remittances they send home are the lifeblood of Andocutin.
Now fewer people are leaving and even fewer are coming back. There is no work for Mexicans up north, people in Andocutin said, and there is certainly nothing for them to come home to.
'There is clearly a slowdown of Mexican migration to the United States,' said Ernesto Rodriguez Chavez, a demographer at the National Institute of Migration in Mexico City. 'If the trend continues, and we think it will, there will be even fewer Mexicans going to the United States this year.'
The reason, experts said, is that work is far harder to find north of the border, especially in construction, manufacturing and the unskilled-service industry, three sectors in which Mexican immigrants, many illegal, play an outsized role. Experts and immigrants said those already in the United States are mostly staying put and hoping for an economic turnaround.
'They have complex social networks; they know how the economy is going,' said Fernando Robledo Martinez, director of the Institute of Migration in the state of Zacatecas. 'We don't have any evidence of a massive return of migrants.'
Luis Vega Tirado, 47, who has a degree in architecture and works in construction, said, 'People have the dream of coming back someday.' But more and more, he said, it is just a dream.
Vega said, 'We stay because we have some way to live.' He and his wife have jobs. But those with few opportunities, Vega said, will wait out the recession and then go north.
In the warm, dry hill country around Andocutin in the central state of Guanajuato, a place of cactus, corn and blue skies, residents said the statistics mirror their realities.
'All my family left to go to the United States, and I'm the only one that stayed here,' said Nelson Ayala Guerrero, 32, an underemployed agricultural engineer who was hanging out at one of the few small stores still open in Andocutin.
'I stayed in school, and all of my family helped pay for my studies so I didn't need to migrate. My six brothers migrated, three of them without papers. I tried to get my tourist visa to go, and they told me that I wasn't a candidate. And now with the crisis, it is impossible.'
The decrease in Mexican migration has also been documented by the U.S. Border Patrol, which reports that arrests of illegal immigrants have plummeted by 27 percent, to levels not seen since the 1970s. From October 2008 through May, the Border Patrol detained 354,959 people, compared with 486,735 in the same period a year earlier.
Soup kitchens and shelters along the Mexican side of the border report a similar drop. Francisco Pellizzari, a Catholic priest at the Center for Migrant Assistance in Nuevo Laredo, said: 'In April of last year, we helped 1,211 people at the center. This year in April, we saw 641 clients.'
While the number of people passing through his shelter decreased, Pellizzari said prices charged by immigrant smugglers, known as coyotes, have increased, perhaps reflecting the difficulty of sneaking into the United States. 'The going rate for a coyote is $2,000 from Nuevo Laredo to San Antonio, and $3,500 to go all the way to Houston. Last year, the fare was $1,500 maximum to either city.'
Although the reasons for fewer border crossings into the United States are clear, it is less certain why Mexican immigrants already there are not returning home.
'I've been saying that there would be an exodus of people. But it hasn't happened,' said Bernardo Villaseor Garcia, president of the Mexican Civic Society of Illinois in Chicago.
In Andocutin, Alma Rosa Chavez Torres, 43, works at the Civil Registry, where she documents births, marriages and deaths. The town's population now stands at around 1,300, down from more than 5,000 in 1995. Chavez has an explanation for why more of her neighbors haven't returned during the recession in the United States. The trend, she says, is that now 'the whole family goes. Not just the men.' And so coming and going is no longer an option, Chavez said.
Marisela Chavez and her husband came back last year from Lincoln, Calif., a town outside Sacramento. 'There was nothing for us anymore,' Chavez said.
'We lived in the States for 15 years, but we decided to return because it's pretty hard. We submitted papers to regularize our situation, but we lost the case,' she said.
'We bought a house in California, but we have bad luck, because the interest rate was variable instead of fixed,' she said. 'The house cost $380,000, and when they reappraised it, they told us that the price now was $200,000. The monthly payments at the beginning were $2,000, but after the crisis, they were $4,000.'
Chavez spoke through a gaping hole in the house she and her family had been building bit by bit with money they had made in the United States. Now that money was gone, and the house stood half-constructed, with dirt floors and bare stucco and without windows, inside doors or appliances.
'My husband now works in the fields, but it's very bad because the seeds and the fertilizer are very expensive,' Chavez said. 'He already harvested a crop of tomatoes and sold it, but they haven't paid us yet.'
Caldern, the retired steelworker, said: 'The problem here is that there is no work, no nothing, so people have to leave. That's why the little people go to the United States. But they can't come back, because the trip now is so expensive and so hard.'
So 'they get stuck,' Caldern said.
'You see the effects of the economic crisis here, because the kids aren't as well-fed and their clothes are not so good,' said Refugio Morales Ramirez, 44, principal of the elementary school with 97 students, down from more than 250 in the 1990s. Morales said that many young children are being cared for by their grandparents, who depend on remittances.
But the cash transfers are down. The Bank of Mexico reports that for the first time in a decade, the remittances dropped, by 3.6 percent in 2008, to $25 billion. After oil revenue and tourism, remittances are the third-largest source of foreign revenue in Mexico.
'Fifteen years ago, the men were the ones that left, but now you see the whole family leaving,' said Ayala, the agricultural engineer. 'My town is getting older, because all the young people are leaving.'
And they are not coming back, even for visits during the holidays, when they would traditionally come home loaded with gifts and cash.
'It used to be in December that nine of every 10 cars had American license plates. Now there aren't any,' Ayala said. Asked how he felt, he didn't hesitate.
'Lonely,' he said.