Posted on March 5, 2023

Many Undocumented Immigrants Are Departing After Decades in the U.S.

Miriam Jordan, New York Times, March 1, 2023

In August 2021, more than three decades after sneaking across the southern border as young adults to work and support their families in Mexico, Irma and Javier Hernandez checked in at La Guardia Airport for a one-way flight from New York to Oaxaca. They were leaving behind four American children, stable jobs where they were valued employees and a country they had grown to love.

But after years of living in the United States without legal status, the couple had decided it was time to return to their homeland. {snip}


The Hernandezes are part of a wave of immigrants who have been leaving the United States and returning to their countries of origin in recent years, often after spending most of their lives toiling as undocumented workers. Some of them never intended to remain in the United States but said that the cost and danger of crossing the border kept them here once they had arrived — and they built lives. Now, middle-aged and still able-bodied, many are making a reverse migration.

Mexicans, who represent the largest and most transformative migration to the United States in modern history, started a gradual return more than a decade ago, with improvements in the Mexican economy and shrinking job opportunities in the United States during the last recession.

But departures have recently accelerated, beginning with crackdowns on immigrants under the Trump administration and continuing under President Biden as many older people decide they have realized their original goals for immigrating and can afford to trade the often-grueling work available to undocumented workers for a slower pace in their home country.

Their departures are one of many factors that have helped keep the total number of undocumented immigrants in the country relatively stable, despite a flood of migrant apprehensions at the southern border that reached two million last year.


The current undocumented population has stayed relatively constant at about 10.2 million over the past several years after peaking at nearly 12 million in 2008, even with the large number of new arrivals at the border.

An emergency health order adopted to slow the transmission of the coronavirus has allowed border authorities to quickly expel more than 2.5 million of the new arrivals since 2020; hundreds of thousands of others have been allowed to enter the country during that period. But a largely voluntary exodus of other immigrants has kept overall population numbers relatively steady, demographers say. (While deportations accelerated under both the Obama and Trump administrations, those numbers were too small to be a significant factor.)

The number of undocumented people from about a dozen countries, including Poland, the Philippines, Peru, South Korea and Uruguay, declined 30 percent or more from 2010 to 2020.

The undocumented population from Mexico, the principal source of immigrants to the United States, dropped to 4.4 million from 6.6 million during that period.

Declines were recorded in all but two states during the decade, plunging 49 percent in New York; 40 percent in California, which lost 815,000 Mexicans; 36 percent in Illinois; and 20 percent, or 267,000, in Texas. The data suggests that those residents were not moving to other states but returning to their home countries, Mr. Warren said.

There has long been an ebb and flow in undocumented immigration. People leave home in response to push factors, such as financial duress, drought and escalating violence, as well as in response to pull factors in the United States, chiefly jobs and safe haven.

The number of undocumented Polish immigrants shrank by half from 2010 to 2019 amid improving conditions in Poland. Brazilians returned in large numbers when their country’s economy was thriving, thanks to a food export boom and successful bids to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics that spurred a construction bonanza.

Rubén Hernández-León, a sociologist at U.C.L.A. who has conducted field research of Mexicans who have returned home, said that the primary reason people gave for leaving the United States was a desire to reunite with family.

The anti-immigrant rhetoric of former President Donald J. Trump coupled with his administration’s crackdown on unlawful immigration caused anxiety that also drove some undocumented people, especially Mexicans, to leave, Mr. Hernández-León said.

A return to the homeland has always characterized Mexico-U.S. migration. For a long time, mainly men alone traveled back and forth between their villages and the United States, earning dollars during monthslong stays.

This circular migration was upended in the early 1990s as the United States introduced a spate of policies to fortify the border, erecting barriers and deploying more agents.

{snip} After facing risks and paying smugglers to cross the border, undocumented workers stayed in the United States {snip}