Illegal Immigrants Going Home, and Local Labor Market at Risk

Alfonso Chardy, Miami Herald, November 30, 2008

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[Malaquías] Gaspar is among millions of undocumented immigrants facing new challenges brought on by slim prospects for legalization, more aggressive federal enforcement and a worsening economy. Now, fewer immigrants are caught while trekking through the dangerous Sonoran Desert or risking their lives aboard makeshift boats in the Caribbean, indicating that fewer are trying. Those who make it through can find themselves on one of several daily federal charter flights that return deportees.

The ripple effects are already being felt. Communities in Latin America and the Caribbean report a reduction in remittances—money sent home from the United States. That money is critical to the survival of families and the success of local civic projects. Border communities that once thrived as way stations for those heading north are now little more than ghost towns.

SMUGGLING RECEDES

Even on the tiny Bahamian island of Bimini, long a hotbed of eager smugglers willing to transport human cargo to South Florida, the mood is grim.

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Illegal immigrants not leaving the country are traveling to any city, town or region where jobs might be more plentiful. Businesses that depend on foreign labor are already seeing an impact.

PRESSURE ON FARMERS

John Alger, of Alger Farms in Homestead, said South Miami-Dade farmers are not hiring as many migrant workers because the economy is forcing them to reduce the size of the fields they plant.

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Last year, at the height of the immigration reform debate, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez warned that without enough foreign workers, landscaping, farms and healthcare companies would suffer.

“We will see rotting fruit,” Gutierrez said in June 2007. “We will see lawns that don’t get cared for. We will see patients who don’t get cared for.”

IMMIGRANTS’ STORIES

From Homestead to Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach, the stories of undocumented immigrants confirm the findings of immigration experts that an increasing number of illegal workers are leaving and a decreasing number are arriving.

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So was Lázaro Rodríguez, of the Mexican border town of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas.

“I used to send about $500 every two weeks home when work was good, but now I send $50 here or $100 there,” said Rodríguez, 46, who stands at a laborer pickup site in West Miami-Dade, on Bird Road near Florida’s Turnpike.

LIMITED INCOME

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Jobs started to vanish six months ago.

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INCOME DOUBLED

Life was hard at first. But problems in adapting to South Florida were outweighed by an increase in family income.

“Back then, there was a lot of work,” Gaspar recalled. “When I was by myself, I earned about $300 per week, and when my wife arrived, we doubled our income.”

Residential developments, part of a hot real-estate market, began to swallow farmland.

“The first to disappear were the lemons,” Gaspar said. “Then other vegetables vanished. Now, we barely make $150, or less than $300 a week between the two of us.”

By October, Gaspar was back in Zimatlán de Alvarez, taking care of his mother—and scouting the local job market in case the situation in the United States does not improve.

“If we can no longer make ends meet, we’ll come back,” Gaspar said. “The idea would be to have a plot of land and plant corn, beans or flowers to sell, while my children, who speak English well, work in the tourist hotels.”

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