CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico – Nearly 1 million Mexican migrants living in the U.S. are expected to head home for the holidays, but relatively few are returning loaded down with gifts and cash this year.
Many are simply moving back after losing their jobs in the U.S. economic crisis, a disappointing turn for an annual journey that has become a cherished tradition in towns and villages across Mexico.
In many impoverished hamlets, migrants are usually welcomed home with lavish festivities. Townspeople admire their new vehicles bought with U.S.-earned dollars, and children scramble to see what is inside boxes as if Santa Claus had just arrived.
Mexican police even accompany returning migrants to protect them against bandits who target vehicles overflowing with toys, appliances, televisions and bicycles.
This year, there is less to protect.
Wearing an Old Navy sweat shirt, Enrique Gonzalez, 38, said all he was bringing back to Saucillo in northern Chihuahua state was his deported uncle's furniture.
"There are no gifts, thanks to the recession," said the Phoenix, Arizona, hotel employee as he waited for a permit for his truck and trailer at a Mexican Customs office in Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.
Rosemary Guerrero said she and her husband could barely afford the trip to their native Durango state, despite falling gasoline prices. Her husband, a construction worker, has only been working about one day a week in Los Angeles for months.
Mexican Immigration Commissioner Cecilia Romero expects the usual number of Mexicans to return between Thanksgiving and Christmas, despite a spike in drug violence along the border, but says "some who are coming back are deciding to stay in Mexico for awhile."
Greater border security, the U.S. crackdown on its undocumented population and the economic downturn have discouraged would-be migrants from heading north, legally and illegally. The Mexican government says emigration has dropped 42 percent over the last two years.
Many Mexicans already in the U.S. also are giving up on the American dream. Even before the economic crisis, in first-quarter 2008, Hispanic unemployment was at 6.5 percent, well above the 4.7 percent rate for all non-Hispanics. Another key indicator is that money migrants send home — Mexico's second-largest source of foreign income — has fallen this year for the first time since record-keeping began 12 years ago.
Mexico is preparing to receive this wave of returnees in the next few weeks. In Mexico City alone, officials predict the usual number of returning migrants will rise by as much as 30,000 because they cannot find work in the U.S.
"Before, we would arrive and everyone would be so happy to see us and they knew we would take them out," Guerrero said as she sat with her mother and 13-year-old daughter in their pickup outside the Mexican Customs office. "But this year we're only bringing back used things. You feel bad coming from so far away to bring back used items. Now we're the ones who feel like we need to be asking them for money."
Jose Moreno, 25, said he'll be asking his relatives in his home state of Zacatecas for help in finding a job.
Two months ago, he was laid off at a Los Angeles factory, where he worked making springs for garage doors.
After spending nearly all his savings and losing his girlfriend, Moreno decided it was time to go home, despite the risk of not being able to get back over the fortified U.S. border.
Moreno endured a six-hour walk across the Arizona desert and another six hours squashed under people hidden in the back of a truck to get to California in 2000.
"I struggled so hard to get into the United States, but I couldn't support myself after losing my job," said Moreno, leaning against a pickup truck with his belongings. "I'm going to wait things out at my parents' house until the economy recovers."
Manuel Medina, 34, said only about half the migrants from Teocaltiche in the Pacific coast state of Jalisco returned this year to celebrate his town's patron saint.
"In past years, we would show up with candy, statues of Christ, other church souvenirs and gifts from other migrant families," said the truck driver from Tulane, California. "But this year, we didn't have anything because of the economy."
Still, he said things are better in the United States than Mexico.
"If it's bad over there, here it's even worse," he said.