State's immigration tide shifts back to Mexico

Those leaving cite immigration crackdown, economic slowdown.

Sales of suitcases and duffel bags are brisk at Las Petacas Luggage on E. Lake Street in Minneapolis.

Owner Santos Jimenez Hernandes says he sells lots of luggage to people on their way back to Mexico.

"The majority of the people are telling me that they've had problems with immigration," he said.

A historic shift is underway across the nation as more immigrants from Mexico head back to their native country and fewer Mexicans cross the border to enter the United States. Fewer job opportunities, increased enforcement on illegal entry and other factors are slowing a four-decade wave of immigration, according to a new report from the Pew Hispanic Center.

Signs of the change are evident in Minnesota, where the number of Mexican-born immigrants has "leveled off some" over the past five years and is now around 60,000, according to estimates from State Demographer Susan Brower.

Brower said her sense is that the number of jobs has declined. "There's less of a pull to come here," she said.

At the luggage store last week, a woman from Mankato bought 10 suitcases, Jimenez Hernandes said. A Mexican native, she told the owner that her husband was deported recently. He called her from Mexico and told her, "Sell everything and come."

After 12 years in Minnesota, Jimenez Hernandes may soon join the exodus. His wife is undocumented and faces deportation after immigration officials took her into custody a few months ago. The couple have two children born in the United States, but Jimenez Hernandes says the family will move too, if she is deported.

"If they take my wife, then I'm going to go," he said.

More going, fewer coming

The arrival of 1.4 million Mexicans to the United States between 2005 and 2010 was matched by the departure of 1.4 million Mexicans and their children, the center found. Report authors linked the trend to migration of illegal immigrants.

While deportations accounted for 5 to 35 percent of the out migration, Mexican immigrants also left voluntarily -- finding employment more difficult in a weakened U.S. economy with a depressed housing construction market, the Pew report found. At the same time, the birthrate in Mexico continued to decline, and border crossings became more difficult because of dangerous drug cartels controlling Mexican border regions and increased U.S. enforcement.

Border arrests have plummeted in recent years, while deportations have risen to record levels, the center found. A growing share of those who had originally crossed the border to find work in the United States said they would not try to return -- 20 percent in 2010 compared with 7 percent in 2005.

The migration changes mark the turning of a tide that brought more Mexican immigrants to the United States than any other country in the world has received from all countries of the world combined, according to the Pew center.

Agustina Borroel has lived in Minnesota for 10 years but is planning to move back to Mexico later this year to join her husband, who was deported in September. Since he has been gone, it has been harder to survive on just one income, she said, especially with three young children.

She sighs heavily at the thought of her new life. "I've got two choices: Be miserable here or be miserable there with him," she said. Borroel hopes to return one day with her family but won't try to do it if her husband doesn't sort out his immigration problems -- she fears the cartels too much.

Immigration attorney Julie Zimmer said she has counseled Mexican immigrant clients who are giving up on life in the United States because of the poor economy and fears of coming under the spotlight of deportation authorities.

"I hear a lot of clients saying, 'You know what, I'm done. I can't find a job or it's not sustaining me and my family,'" Zimmer said.

They want her advice, she said, on crossing the border without getting detained on the way out.

'Bus of death'

On E. Lake Street, a bustling corridor where many Mexican-Americans gather, Orlando Cruz sells tickets for a bus that stops outside a grocery store and takes people from Minnesota to the Mexican border. He calls it the "bus of death" because "you go and you don't come back," he said.

Jose Andrade, 21, was among a handful of people waiting for the bus on Friday. Two years ago, he came to the United States "to survive," he said, but he could not find work. So with his belongings stuffed into two large bags and a bottle of water tucked in his jeans, he boarded the bus.

Cruz runs a money exchange business with several locations, including one where the bus stops. Over the past four years, he noticed fewer people sending money back to Mexico, so he expanded his business to include a grocery store next door.

There are also signs that fewer Mexicans are making the trip up to Minnesota.

Fewer new students from Mexico are enrolled in English language classes, said James Bernard, a teacher at Neighborhood House, an agency on St. Paul's West Side that helps new immigrants. His Mexican students told him jobs are hard to come by these days, as companies get stricter at checking identification papers.

Nearby at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, another hub for Mexican-Americans, pews are full, but the Rev. Kevin Kenney finds more people seeking him out to deliver a blessing as they leave for Mexico. They give him many reasons for going. "The economy here isn't that good," Kenney said. "The economy in Mexico is picking up. People have land or people have houses back home. If they can't work here or they can't pay the rent or they're being foreclosed on, they decide to go back."

Strong views

The report has provoked strong reactions on both sides of the immigration debate.

"What it demonstrates is that illegal immigration is a controllable phenomenon," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a Washington-based group that favors restricting immigration. But he argued the biggest driver is the U.S. economy. "What has happened is the economy in the United States has not been doing very well. The jobs simply aren't available in the way they used to be."

John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said the Pew report may show that the United States can control the border, but he said officials need to figure out a new policy to allow undocumented immigrants who are law-abiding and have U.S. citizen-children to stay legally and remain contributing members of society.

"We still have an obligation as a country to fix our immigration policy," Keller said. "The vast majority of people are making a better life for themselves and their families here, and are going to stay."

ashah@startribune.com • 612-673-4488 plouwagie@startribune.com • 612-673-7102

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