Immigrant Influx Into N.C. Slacking Off
This is reprinted with permission from The News & Observer of Raleigh.
By Kristin Collins and Lorenzo Perez
The News & Observer
North Carolina's decade-long influx of illegal immigrants may be waning as the economy falters and law officers crack down.
Fewer migrants are crossing the nation's southern border, U.S. and Mexican officials say. And some of those who had made homes in North Carolina are returning to their home countries -- pushed by unemployment, the loss of driver's licenses or the deportation of family members.
"There is no work here," said Jose Ramirez, 40, who visited the Mexican consulate in Raleigh recently to make sure his passport was in order. He said he hasn't found a job in two months and, after four years working in construction and restaurants, most recently in Wilmington, he was planning to return to his home in Veracruz.
"When I was working in restaurants, I was sometimes able to send home $800 a month," he said. "But there is no work left."
For North Carolina, there are not yet enough data to show whether the immigrant population is shrinking. Census figures that could shed more light are not yet available.
But local and national indicators strongly suggest that the rate of growth of illegal immigrants has at least slowed considerably.
In a study released this fall, the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington estimated the U.S. illegal immigrant population at 11.9 million in March 2008, down from 12.4 million in 2007. The study's authors cautioned that the dip was within the margin of error, but they said there is evidence of a sharp slowing in population growth.
Another Washington research group, the Center for Immigration Studies, found a similar decline.
The Mexican government said last week that the number of its citizens who left to live abroad this year was down more than 40 percent since 2006. The U.S. Border Patrol said it caught 18 percent fewer immigrants trying to cross the border in the fiscal year that ended in September. And money sent home by Mexicans living in the United States has dropped significantly in the past few months, Mexican officials say.
In North Carolina, sheriff's departments have helped deport more than 3,000 illegal immigrants this year. The Mexican consulate in Raleigh has seen a surge in Mexican citizens applying for passports and seeking to secure dual citizenship for U.S.-born children -- both steps that would ease a return to Mexico.
The N.C. Department of Public Instruction released figures showing that the number of Hispanic students grew by less than 9,000 this year in North Carolina. For each of the past four years, Hispanic enrollment had grown by more than 13,000.
Freddy Garcia of Raleigh recently saw his brother-in-law deported to Mexico after he was pulled over for speeding. And last week, Garcia said, the man's wife and children reluctantly followed, selling all their possessions and giving up their hopes of buying a home in North Carolina.
Garcia, 28, is supporting his wife and three young children by working two jobs, one on an asbestos removal crew and another in a restaurant. But he said he is worried about the future and is also planning a return to Mexico.
"The situation here has gotten difficult, and the jobs are harder to come by," he said. "Things are getting ugly."
Garcia said he will send his wife and children, two of whom are U.S.-born, back to Mexico within the next six months. He will follow soon after.
Miguel Munoz, a Durham lawyer, said several Hispanic clients who have lived in North Carolina for years told him they plan to go home for Christmas and won't be coming back.
He said some of his clients no longer have driver's licenses -- a change in state law makes it impossible for illegal immigrants to renew them -- and they are afraid of law enforcement programs that allow officers to check immigration status.
"Especially with the economy, they are bombarded with all kinds of things," Munoz said. "They tell me, 'I don't think it's worth it to be taken to jail.' "
Luis Rivas, pastor of a Raleigh church that serves Hispanics, said five families from his church have returned to Mexico, Venezuela and Honduras this year. Without driver's licenses, many of them could not find jobs.
Illegal immigrants are ineligible for unemployment and welfare benefits and, when they lose their income, many have few reserves to draw on. In their home countries, most at least have family homes or farms.
"People are hoping the economy revs up again, and they will try to wait as long as they can," Rivas said. "But when they can't hold out any longer, they'll leave."
There are indicators that times are hard for illegal immigrants, who tend to work in industries affected by the economic downturn, such as construction, restaurants and hotels. Workplace immigration crackdowns have pushed employers such as the Smithfield Foods slaughterhouse in Bladen County to purge workers who cannot prove legal residence.
Catholic Charities of Raleigh opened a new food pantry and Hispanic family center last week, saying that the number of people asking for help with food has increased by 30 percent this year.
Some businesses that cater to Hispanics, such as grocer Compare Foods, say their business is down significantly -- though they don't know whether their customers are moving away or simply reining in spending.
The Rev. Carlos Arce, the vicar for Hispanics in the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, recently left a parish in Robeson County, where he served employees of the Smithfield Foods slaughterhouse that federal immigration agents raided twice last year.
He said some of his parishioners, who had lived in North Carolina for more than a decade, left after the raids because they were too afraid to work.
"They prefer to go back and know that they are with their children," Arce said, "and not take the risk of going to work and not knowing if they'll come home."
Too Early to Say?
Others caution not to draw conclusions from spotty reports of immigrants leaving the country. They say the illegal immigrant population is always churning with departures and arrivals, and it's too soon to say whether they are leaving in droves or whether current trends will continue.
Michelle Mittelstadt, of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, said her group is studying the issue.
"Certainly there are individuals returning home," she said. "Is there a major exodus? To this point, we haven't seen it."
Some advocates say that, for most immigrants, conditions in the United States are still better than those in their home countries, where they face extreme poverty, a lack of medical care and fewer educational opportunities for their children, many of whom are U.S. citizens.
"As bad as it gets here, it's not going to be worse than the internal strife of these Latin American countries," said Irene Godinez, advocacy director for the statewide group El Pueblo.
Godinez said that she knew a few immigrants who left last year because of the strict enforcement climate. But overall, she said, North Carolina's economy is stronger than much of the nation's, and many immigrants have hope that a new president will give them a chance at gaining legal residency through immigration reform.
Carlos Gonzalez, 21, arrived in Raleigh from the Mexican state of Queretaro nine months ago and said he has no plans to leave. He lives with friends and has steady work painting houses, making an income that is unimaginable in Mexico.
He avoids driving because he doesn't want "to get pulled over and get in trouble," but otherwise he says he feels secure in his newly adopted home.
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