More Immigrants Choose to Leave U.S., Go Home

Albert Siegel, Miami Herald, June 1, 2008

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But the reasons he enumerates are echoed by increasing numbers of Latin American immigrants, both legal and not, who appear to be souring on their job prospects and going home:

It was the scant money he made at a menial restaurant job, Salinas said, just enough for food and rent, with barely anything left for his family in Mexico—the reason he came in the first place.

It was the constant fear of being detained by U.S. immigration, especially after the relative with whom he shared a home in West Kendall got stopped while driving without a license. After that, they sold the car and got around with great difficulty on a bicycle.

Finally it was the loneliness. He did not bring his wife and young children, whom he had not seen for 2 1⁄2 years, for fear of the risk of arrest and detention.

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No hard figures exist, but various surveys and anecdotes from immigrants, their advocates and consular officers in Miami suggest that more Latin Americans are voluntarily heading back home, the apparent result of the U.S. economic downturn and anxiety generated by a federal crackdown on illegal immigration.

The hardest hit appear to be those in agricultural, construction, food processing and service jobs in which many immigrants work.

In South Miami-Dade, even before the winter growing season came to an end, many farmworkers from Mexico and Central America were leaving for home.

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At the Nicaraguan consulate in West Miami-Dade, the number of Nicaraguan citizens applying for tax exemptions to move their household goods back has risen significantly, said Consul General Luis Martinez. Many are men who found construction work has dried up.

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A 2007 U.S. Department of Homeland Security report found that the number of permanent legal residents entering the country last year from South and Central America dropped by a quarter. That followed a big increase from 2005 to 2006.

A recent survey of Latin American immigrants by the Inter-American Development Bank highlights their malaise: 81 percent said it was more difficult now than a year ago to get a well-paying U.S. job. More than a quarter said they were considering going home in the next few years. And 68 percent said anti-immigration sentiment was a major problem—almost double the percentage who said so in 2001.

UNCLEAR TRENDS

Not everyone agrees the trend is clear-cut. A consular official in Miami said many Brazilians are going home—some unwillingly, because deportations have increased, and others drawn by an economic revival at home.

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One difference, he said: Those coming to stay increasingly have work visas, in part in response to U.S. immigration enforcement.

Hundreds of Brazilians have returned in recent months to Governador Valadares, an area in the southeast of the country.

Sociology professor Sueli Siqueira, who interviewed hundreds of the returnees, found that 43 percent left the United States because they weren’t satisfied with their earnings. About 28 percent had been deported. “The cost-benefit of this experience of migration stopped being positive,” Siqueira said, “and they began thinking about coming back.”

The departures are evidence that the Bush administration’s decision to tighten the screws on enforcement is paying off, say proponents of stricter immigration laws.

Several states passed their own laws, from tighter employment verification requirements to authorizing local police to act as immigration agents.

Passage of similar laws in Georgia, coupled with a construction slowdown, prompted Salinas to join a relative in South Florida.

“That’s the whole point of enforcement, to change the climate, to make it as hard as possible for you as an illegal alien, so you can’t just melt away into the shadows,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington group favoring sharp curbs on immigration.

But the crackdown’s critics say it has mainly succeeded in spreading fear among the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country without solving the underlying problem.

ECONOMIC REASONS

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For some immigrants who return home, the U.S. experience has paid off in added skills.

Cesar Buitrago left his ruined real-estate and loan agency in San Francisco to open a 12-room, pastel pink hotel in Managua.

“My business had gone under. This was a sudden solution, something of a test,” the 59-year-old said, leaning into a wicker rocker in the shade of his Gran Marquez Hotel in the wealthy Los Robles neighborhood. “I am living off this right now.”

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That’s a feeling shared by Padilla, the former roofer now back in Nicaragua. After only four months, he’s opened one clothing store and is planning to launch a hamburger joint. In dollar terms, he doesn’t earn much—$400 a month—but in the hemisphere’s second-poorest country, that’s more than enough.

‘There’s that phrase about working in the States for a ‘pair of years,’ earning a little something, and then returning home in triumph,” Padilla said. “But with the economy in crisis, you can’t save much and you discover that the so-called dream is false.”

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