It’s a common scene this time of year: streams of overloaded cars, pickups and vans with U.S. license plates crossing into Mexico for the holidays.
Most are filled with Hispanic families from Arizona and other states on their way to visit relatives south of the border for a few weeks before heading back to the U.S. But this year, the holiday travelers are being joined by scores of families such as Jorge and Liliana Franco, who are driving to Mexico not to visit but to stay—permanently.
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.
Dozens of immigrants are leaving the U.S. daily, and even more are expected to leave once the sanctions law takes effect in January, provided the law survives a last-minute legal challenge, said Rosendo Hernandez, president of the advocacy group Immigrants Without Borders.
“If people can’t find work, they won’t be able to pay their bills, so they will leave,” Hernandez said.
In what are considered bellwethers of permanent moves back to Mexico, the Mexican consulate in Phoenix has seen a dramatic increase in applications for Mexican birth certificates, passports and other documents that immigrants living in Arizona will need to return home.
In November alone, the consulate processed 240 applications for Mexican birth certificates, three times as many as the same month last year, said Carlos Flores Vizcarra, Mexican consul general of Phoenix.
The consulate also has processed more than 16,500 applications for Mexican passports this year, nearly twice as many as last year. Vizcarra attributed some of the demand for passports to stricter travel regulations among the U.S., Mexico and Canada slated to take effect in January. But he said many illegal immigrants are applying for passports in case they lose their jobs due to the sanctions law or a slowdown in the economy and therefore want to go back and live in Mexico.
“That is the whole purpose of the (sanctions) law,” said state Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, “to not only stop people from coming, but to have these who are here illegally go back to whence they came. They shouldn’t be here.”
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates there are 500,000 illegal immigrants in Arizona, and they make up about 9 percent of the state’s population. Illegal immigrants make up 10 percent to 12 percent of the work force, according to Pew and the Center for Immigration Studies.
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The law threatens to suspend or revoke business licenses from employers caught knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. It also requires employers to use a federal computer program to electronically verify the employment eligibility of new hires.
The law takes effect Jan. 1, and several business groups are suing to have the law tossed out, claiming it is unconstitutional. Nevertheless, thousands of illegal immigrants have been let go as worried employers conduct reviews of I-9s, the federal forms employers are required to use to verify the employment eligibility of their workers.