July 31, 2008

Illegal immigrants returning home in large numbers

12:00 AM CDT on Thursday, July 31, 2008
By DIANNE SOLÍS and STELLA M. CHÁVEZ / The Dallas Morning News
/ The Dallas Morning News
Javier García and Brendan Case and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

By several measures, illegal immigrants appear to be returning home in large numbers, pushed by enforcement efforts and the sagging economy.

A report issued Wednesday in Washington put the size of the exodus at more than a million over the last year, though its methodology was criticized.

Also Wednesday, Mexico's central bank said that remittances – payments sent home by Mexicans working abroad – have slowed after years of steep increases. That announcement came as the Mexican government considers ways to receive and help find work for returnees.

In Dallas, officials said nearly 500 families have gone to the Mexican consulate this year seeking documents needed to enroll their children in Mexican schools. That's twice as many as in all of last year.

The last time Mexico – the country that sends the U.S. the most legal and illegal immigrants – saw a repatriation of significant magnitude was in the 1950s.

This time, the drivers appear to be concerns about the job market and stepped-up enforcement of immigration laws, said Roberto Suro, a University of Southern California professor who formerly directed the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.

"There is every reason to suspect there is some response to the enforcement efforts that have created an atmosphere of fear," he said, "but knowing what number to put on it is very, very difficult."

Census data

The Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank, did put a number on the migration: 1.3 million over the last year.

That estimate was based on data collected monthly by the Census Bureau on the number of foreign-born adults living in the U.S. The latest data was from May. And the estimates are based on the assumption that the "overwhelming majority" of the estimated 12 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally are Hispanics who are younger adults with relatively little education.

Other groups were quick to criticize that assumption, and the assertion that the population of illegal immigrants peaked last August as Congress debated legislation that would have provided legal status to those here illegally. Critics of the report also said that a lost job doesn't necessarily force a construction worker to leave the country.

Less cash

But construction job losses are affecting remittances, Bank of Mexico President Guillermo Ortiz said Wednesday. He said about 22 percent of Mexican workers in the U.S. have jobs in construction, an industry that has slowed sharply.

Gone are the days when migrants came back to Mexico each year flush with cash, then returned to jobs waiting in the United States, as they did during the boom years of 2002 to 2006.

Now, more migrants rounded up by U.S. immigration officials are being sent home penniless. Others have decided to return for good.

'I want to stay here'

Among them is Nancy Romero, 27, who waited Wednesday for documents from the Mexican consulate in Dallas.

She was with her two boys, ages 6 and 4, but not her husband, who was deported 15 days ago. He was detained after being involved in a traffic accident.

Ms. Romero said, "Returning to my country fills me with emotion. But I also feel for my children because they have so many opportunities here."

Her 6-year-old, Jose, a U.S. citizen, interrupted the conversation to say, "I want to stay here, so I can learn English."

That sentiment is common, according to the Mexican consul in Dallas, Enrique Hubbard, who spends many mornings talking to people about their plans.

"People say they have been out of a job for a long time, or people worry they will be arrested and have to go back," Mr. Hubbard said. "Practically all of them say they have children born here ... and then when the kids grow up, they will have to choose what country they live in. It is very sad, heartbreaking."

Veronica Escobedo, a U.S. citizen raised in Mexico, has three children. She fears for her husband, an illegal immigrant.

"We have family members that have been deported," she said. "My husband is scared and said, 'I don't want the same thing to happen to me.' "

The consul said discussing such emotional decisions is tricky.

"Sometimes, we start questioning the reasons for them to go back and we give the false impression that we don't want them," says Mr. Hubbard, a former ambassador. "They are welcome. It is their home."

Welcomed home

The Mexican government is considering building reception facilities for returnees at four border points, including Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Juárez, Mr. Hubbard said. A group of Mexican governors is lobbying for preferential hiring of returning immigrants for large infrastructure projects, he noted.

Such a move comes after two Mexican governors came to Dallas last summer to meet with immigrants, who angrily asked them why there was no plan for jobs when they return.

Now, a Mexican government Web site for the Interior Ministry shows a group of Mexicans in line at a metal fence in San Ysidro, California. The headline reads: "Program of Human Repatriation." The subtext: "The federal, state and municipal government and civil society are organizing to help you with dignified treatment so that you can return to your community of origin. We will provide: Medical and psychological help, shelter and food, and communication with your loved ones and information on your options for employment."


Against this backdrop, the U.S. government detailed Wednesday a pilot program for self-deportation aimed at illegal immigrants from multiple countries who live in five cities. None are in Texas. U.S. immigration officials said there are about 460,000 illegal immigrants who have been given final orders to leave the country but have no criminal charges filed against them.

The migrants would be given 90 days to plan their return to their homelands.

On Wednesday afternoon, Juan and Lucia Estevez and their two boys could only think of returning to Mexico. The couple said they're tired of living as illegal immigrants. They came here hoping to buy a house, but instead saved money to build a home in Mexico City. They plan to leave Friday, over the objections of their 13-year-old son.

Staff writers Javier García and Brendan Case and The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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