A year ago, Primitivo Morales had a home in the suburbs, two children in college and two successful businesses on E. Lake Street in Minneapolis.

But the economic downturn, combined with cranked-up immigration enforcement, has driven customers away and crushed his personal finances. After 25 years in the United States, he now is reluctantly making plans to return to Mexico.

Morales, 45, is part of a trend unfolding across the state and the nation. Latinos in the prime of their work life are returning home because their dreams have collapsed along with the economy. The numbers are still relatively small, say Latino leaders, but for the first time in years, the door back to Mexico is swinging open.

"There were people up and down Lake Street a year ago; now there's nobody,'' said Morales, glancing sadly out the window of his restaurant, La Poblanita, onto the street. "The construction workers who used to come here are gone. ... And many [undocumented] people now are afraid to venture out.

"Many people have left for Mexico.''

While there is no data that precisely documents the trend, there are clear indicators that Latino communities are facing their biggest economic challenges in years. The number of Mexicans immigrating to the United States dropped by 25 percent from August 2007 to August 2008, according to recent Mexican census data. The amount of money sent home by Mexican migrants dropped by $1 billion last year, the first decline since the government began tracking it 13 years ago, according to Mexico's central bank.

In Minnesota, Latino unemployment jumped from 4.7 percent in 2006 to 7.5 percent in 2008, according to the most recent figures from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Latino leaders believe the figure is even higher today.

Clear signs of change

A visit to the Latino hubs in the Twin Cities -- E. Lake Street in Minneapolis and the West Side of St. Paul -- shows clear signs of change.

At the Neighborhood House in St. Paul, a community social service center, staff report a new phenomena.

"I've been an ESL [English as a Second Language] teacher five years, and this fall and winter is definitely different," said Brenda Anfinson, sipping punch at a graduation party last month. "People are talking a lot about getting laid off. People are talking about going home. ... I've had four or five people go back to Mexico.''

Down the street at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, the Rev. Kevin Kenney says church-goers are seeking advice about whether to stay or leave. The decision is particularly painful, he said, because workers here support families back home. They feel like failures, he said.

"This week I talked to two families considering it,'' Kenney said recently. "One didn't have [legal] papers and couldn't find a job. The other was a woman with papers, who has been here about 20 years. She was thinking of going back, but was worried whether it was the right decision for her daughter.''

On Minneapolis' E. Lake Street, store owners also report that some workers have called it quits.

"We had about six workers go back to Mexico in the past couple months,'' said Maria Lala, owner of La Mexicana grocery store. "And some customers, too.''

Ricardo Alday, spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, said that the embassy is hearing anecdotal evidence from around the country about reverse migration, but that documenting it is difficult. One way is to count the numbers of permits issued to Mexicans returning home with large household goods, he said. But that doesn't measure immigrants who pack a few suitcases and head south.

That said, the Mexican government is monitoring school enrollment in their states that send large numbers of immigrants across the border, he said. And some of those states are "adjusting'' their repatriation programs for returnees "because of the strong possibility people may want to go back in bigger numbers.''

Alday, like Minnesota's Latino leaders, stressed there is no sign of a massive exodus of Mexicans. The departures reflect a new phenomena in the United States, they said, namely an anemic job market.

Minnesota is among the states with the biggest hikes in immigrant unemployment, according to a study released last month by the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan research center in Washington. Immigrants, who nationally enjoyed a 4.6 percent unemployment rate during the third quarter of 2007, faced an 11.2 percent rate the first quarter of 2009, research showed.

"Workers are thinking, 'If I don't have a job here or if I don't have a job in Mexico, what's the difference? Plus no one will harass me' '' in Mexico, said Ramon Leon, executive director of the Latino Economic Development Center in Minneapolis. "And businesses look around and ask: 'Am I relying on a customer base that may not be here?'''

From success to struggles

Morales is among the Latino businessmen who helped transform E. Lake Street from a crime-ridden area to an ethnic business district. His restaurant and grocery store occupy the building that formerly housed the Pizza Shack, site of the 1995 murder of Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf.

Morales had been commuting to work from his home in Inver Grove Heights, which he shared with his wife and four children. Then blew in the perfect storm.

The construction trade, a major employer of Latino workers, was hit exceptionally hard by the economy. Many employers adopted stiffer identification checks. Immigration agents frequented the area. Property taxes jumped. Profits fell.

Finally last winter, Morales was forced to sell his home. He cut payroll from 35 workers to 12. Two weeks ago, he put his building up for sale.

"At least in Mexico, I wouldn't have a mortgage and property taxes,'' Morales said. "But it's sad. I've worked so hard. This was my dream. And now it's evaporating.''

But workers such Chris Salvador, an English student at the Neighborhood House, believes Latinos should think twice about heading back.

"If the situation is not good here, it's worse in other countries,'' Salvador said. "Here if you can't afford rent, you move in with a friend or get more jobs. My wife has three jobs. I have two. Somehow you can make it.''

Morales, however, feels he's played all his cards. He expects to open a business in Mexico and see what happens. But he's leaving his options open.

When asked if he would ever return to Minnesota, Morales shrugged: "Who knows?''

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511