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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Many immigrants are departing after decades illegally in the US

Irma and Javier Hernandez dance during the celebration for the Virgin of Guadalupe, the town patron of Guadalupe de Cisneros in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, on Feb. 13, 2023. After years of living in the United States without legal status, Irma and Javier Hernandez decided it was time to return to their homeland.

By Miriam Jordan

In August 2021, more than three decades after sneaking across the southern border as young adults to work and support their families in Mexico, Irma and Javier Hernandez checked in at LaGuardia Airport for a one-way flight from New York to Oaxaca. They were leaving behind four American children, stable jobs where they were valued employees and a country they had grown to love.

But after years of living in the United States without legal status, the couple had decided it was time to return to their homeland. Irma Hernandez’s mother was 91, and they feared she might die — as Irma Hernandez’s father and in-laws did — before they saw each other again. With dollar savings, they had built a little house, where they could live, and had invested in a tortilleria, which they could run. Their children, now young adults, could fend for themselves.

“Only God knows how hard we worked day after day in New York,” said Irma Hernandez, 57. “We are still young enough that we could have kept going there, but ultimately we made the difficult choice to return.”

The Hernandezes are part of a wave of immigrants who have been leaving the United States and returning to their countries of origin in recent years, often after spending most of their lives toiling as workers without legal status. Some of them never intended to remain in the United States but said that the cost and danger of crossing the border kept them here once they had arrived — and they built lives. Now, middle-aged and still able-bodied, many are making a reverse migration.

Mexicans, who represent the largest and most transformative migration to the United States in modern history, started a gradual return more than a decade ago, with improvements in the Mexican economy and shrinking job opportunities in the United States during the last recession.

But departures have recently accelerated, beginning with crackdowns on immigrants under the Trump administration and continuing under President Joe Biden as many older people decide they have realized their original goals for immigrating and can afford to trade the often-grueling work available to them for a slower pace in their home country.

Their departures are one of many factors that have helped keep the total number of immigrants living in the country illegally relatively stable, despite a flood of migrant apprehensions at the southern border that reached 2 million last year.

“It’s a myth that everyone comes here and nobody ever leaves,” said Robert Warren, a senior visiting fellow at the Center for Migration Studies, a think tank, who wrote a recent report on the trend.

“There’s a lot of people leaving the country, and they’re leaving voluntarily,” said Warren, who is one of several demographers, including academics at Emory University, Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, who have been documenting the trend.

The current population of migrants living in the U.S. illegally has stayed relatively constant at about 10.2 million over the past several years after peaking at nearly 12 million in 2008, even with the large number of new arrivals at the border.

An emergency health order adopted to slow the transmission of the coronavirus has allowed border authorities to quickly expel more than 2.5 million of the new arrivals since 2020; hundreds of thousands of others have been allowed to enter the country during that period. But a largely voluntary exodus of other immigrants has kept overall population numbers relatively steady, demographers say. (While deportations accelerated under the administrations of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, those numbers were too small to be a significant factor.)

The number of people living in the U.S. illegally who migrated from about a dozen countries, including Poland, the Philippines, Peru, South Korea and Uruguay, declined 30% or more from 2010 to 2020.

The population of migrants living in the U.S. illegally who come from Mexico, the principal source of immigrants to the United States, dropped to 4.4 million from 6.6 million during that period.

Declines were recorded in all but two states during the decade, plunging 49% in New York; 40% in California, which lost 815,000 Mexicans; 36% in Illinois; and 20% or 267,000, in Texas. The data suggests that those residents were not moving to other states but returning to their home countries, Warren said.

There has long been an ebb and flow in illegal immigration. People leave home in response to push factors, such as financial duress, drought and escalating violence, as well as in response to pull factors in the United States, chiefly jobs and safe haven.

The number of Polish immigrants living in the U.S. illegally shrank by half from 2010 to 2019 amid improving conditions in Poland. Brazilians returned in large numbers when their country’s economy was thriving, thanks to a food export boom and successful bids to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics that spurred a construction bonanza.

Rubén Hernández-León, a sociologist at UCLA who has conducted field research of Mexicans who have returned home, said that the primary reason people gave for leaving the United States was a desire to reunite with family.

Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, coupled with his administration’s crackdown on unlawful immigration, caused anxiety that also drove some people living in the U.S. illegally, especially Mexicans, to leave, Hernández-León said.

“Most of them never wanted to stay. We gummed up the works when we militarized the border,” said Douglas S. Massey, an immigration scholar at Princeton. “They spent longer and longer time and had families.”

Now, he said, census data suggests that many of them are electing to go home.

“If they have savings and a house in Mexico, they can retire there,” he said. ”Their kids born in the States are now old enough to take care of themselves and can go back and forth to visit.”

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