On a Wednesday afternoon, in the gravel lot of El Expreso bus depot, Benito Ramos waits with his life packed in several plastic tubs.
After eight years in the United States, he is going home to Hidalgo, Mexico, to his mother and a small concrete block house built with the money earned clearing tables in Tampa restaurants.
When times were good, Ramos worked 16 hours a day at two restaurants, five days a week. His weekly check was $520. But for months, bosses have slashed his schedule. He was lucky to work six hours a day for two or three days, bringing in just $117 a week.
A few weeks ago, Ramos bought a bus ticket and joined legions—perhaps thousands—of illegal immigrants going back home.
The reason, immigrants and experts say, is the slow economy—particularly the crash of the construction industry and the slowdown in the retail and low-wage service sectors.
No one is certain about the size of the exodus. One group says the undocumented population has dropped 11 percent in a year. Other experts dispute those findings and say the decline is much smaller.
One thing seems clear: Those leaving tend to be single or unattached men like Ramos. They now face stiff competition from legal and illegal immigrants who had climbed the economic ladder and put down roots during the construction boom. Now they’re all scrambling for jobs—even returning to the fields—and also face competition from out-of-work Americans.
Van driver Antonio Trevino brings passengers from Sarasota, Tampa, Clearwater and Bradenton to the bus depot. Since January, most of his passengers have been single immigrant men headed home to stay.
In July, the pro-enforcement Center for Immigration Studies issued a report that said the illegal immigrant population had declined 11 percent, or 1.3-million people, between August 2007 and May. It credits enforcement by immigration officials.
But critics dispute the study’s findings, which are based on census data of Hispanics between the ages of 18 and 40 with a high school degree or less and unspecified immigration status.
Experts agree undocumented migration has slowed since 2007. But they attribute it to the economy, not enforcement.
Single or unattached men make up a quarter of the estimated 12-million illegal immigrants, said Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington-based research organization.
Passel is preparing a report about the recent drop in undocumented migration, which had been growing by 500,000 people a year since 2000. Those days appear to be over.
Farmers are not worried.
As they prepare their fields for fall crops, their phones are ringing off the hook.
“Right now I have people contacting me asking me for work,” said Don Balaban of Balaban Farms in Thonotosassa, who turns them down. “They are unemployed from the building trade.”
Legal and illegal immigrants who had planted roots with good construction jobs are now competing for landscaping jobs and field work.
With more competition from unemployed construction workers, single men in the fields feel the squeeze, said Dave Moore, executive director of the Beth-El Mission in Wimauma. Come fall, there won’t be enough farm jobs to go around, he said.