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Faced with a battered U.S. economy and dismal job opportunities, Nubia Díaz and her husband Camilo left metropolitan Miami for the tiny town of Pandi in Colombia, where they say their money can take them much farther.
And they are not alone. An increasing number of Latin Americans -- documented and undocumented -- are choosing to return to their native countries, where political climates are stabilizing and their economies are growing.
“We are very comfortable here,” said Nubia, a dual citizen of Colombia and the U.S. “It is good for us. We have many things that we don’t have over there. Here, our house that is fully paid, we don’t have to pay mortgage. All we have to pay are bills.”
When the United States economy tanked after the real estate bubble burst, undocumented immigrants returned in droves to Latin America, especially those who worked in the construction sector, according to a study from the Economic Policy Institute. Since then, the return rate has decreased but is still higher than usual, advocates say, citing anecdotal evidence.
“It’s not as high as you’d think,” concedes Colin Raja, program director of the National Network of Immigration Reform. “But we are definitely seeing an increase in the number of people going back.”
There are 1 million fewer undocumented immigrants in the U.S. since 2007, according to estimates. The Department of Homeland Security and the Pew Hispanic Center both estimate that the number of undocumented immigrants was the same in January 2010 as it was the previous year.
“What we’ve seen from Mexico is that inflow has dropped precipitously and outflow has stayed flat,” said Aaron Terrazas, analyst from the Migration Policy Institute.
One big reason that illegal immigration has slowed into the U.S. is a sharp increase in the cost. There is a heightened fear of being deported amid the passage of tighter immigration bills, say activists with the National Network of Immigration Reform. In addition, these activists say coyotes whom some immigrants pay to bring them across the border have increased their fees from $500 before the real estate boom to as high as $3,000 a person.
Economics are the main reason that people leave.
In areas such as New York City, Reverend Hector from Trinity Church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn says his congregation with a large Latino immigrant population has been hit hard by economics. One parishioner, a single mother, who frequents the food pantry, spends $800 a month on rent, $200 on child care and winds up with $200 left over, he says. She has been considering returning to her native Ecuador because she’s not sure that the sacrifices she’s made are worthwhile.
“She has told me at least she can live with dignity in her country,” he said.
The economy has hit Latinos hardest in Providence, Rhode Island and Hartford Connecticut, where they have the highest unemployment rates in the country, according to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute.
Residents in the area are acutely aware of this fact.
Julio Aragon, president of Mexican Association of Rhode Island, said he knows of families who have left the area for other states before returning to their homeland because times are tough. But for some, leaving is the same as admitting a sort of defeat and is a blow to pride, he explained.
“The last thing is to move to Mexico,” said Aragon. “We are feeling like we are stuck in the middle of nowhere all the (anti-immigrant) declarations from politicians, but we still believe we can do better here than we can at home. We maintain the dream.”
While documented professionals from countries like Mexico, Colombia and Chile, are returning home, they maintaining a US base and migrate between the two countries, said Terrazas.
Diaz and her family will join in the circular migration when they return to the US in a few years. At that time, their son will be old enough to start school. Her husband hopes he will be educated in the US but the family expects their youngest member will be lured back to Colombia with his parents, where they hope the economy continues to strengthen under a stable political climate and there is less pressure to work long hours to maintain a nice lifestyle.
“I know many people that moved back to Colombia,” said Diaz. After an accident, her husband could no longer work and relied on disability checks to pay the bills. “The money that we have every day was less, less, less because everything was higher. We are very, very good with that money and we are very comfortable here.”
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.