BY ALFONSO CHARDY | Miami Herald
November 30, 2008
Malaquías Gaspar left his farm village in southern Mexico when the economy soured in the mid-1990s. He headed north illegally and found the proverbial better opportunity in South Florida, where he made a decent living by picking fruit and building homes.
But the U.S. economic crisis has disrupted his life and the lives of countless other illegal immigrants who are now planning to leave or have already left.
Gaspar recently returned to Zimatlán de Alvarez in Oaxaca state, primarily to care for his ailing mother -- but also to plan for the future should the economy worsen in South Miami-Dade County, where his wife and four children remain.
''If we can't feed our children, we'll come back,'' said Gaspar, 40, as he sat at his family home -- upgraded with money he had sent from South Florida.
Gaspar is among millions of undocumented immigrants facing new challenges brought on by slim prospects for legalization, more aggressive federal enforcement and a worsening economy. Now, fewer immigrants are caught while trekking through the dangerous Sonoran Desert or risking their lives aboard makeshift boats in the Caribbean, indicating that fewer are trying. Those who make it through can find themselves on one of several daily federal charter flights that return deportees.
The ripple effects are already being felt. Communities in Latin America and the Caribbean report a reduction in remittances -- money sent home from the United States. That money is critical to the survival of families and the success of local civic projects. Border communities that once thrived as way stations for those heading north are now little more than ghost towns.
Even on the tiny Bahamian island of Bimini, long a hotbed of eager smugglers willing to transport human cargo to South Florida, the mood is grim.
''The large groups are not coming as much as they used to, but . . . people who want to make money nefariously still view this as an opportunity,'' said Jeff Dubel, public affairs officer for the U.S. Embassy in Nassau, the Bahamian capital.
The Center for Immigration Studies, in a report published in July, was the first to note that undocumented immigrants were leaving the United States. But the report, ''Homeward Bound,'' attributed departures to increased enforcement.
Later, the Pew Hispanic Center, a research group in Washington, suggested that fewer immigrants were arriving because of the economic slowdown and stricter enforcement. The report said that the illegal population had stopped growing and that it now stood at about 11.9 million, down by about 500,000 from a year earlier.
While the potential ramifications of a reduced flow of immigrants may not be evident in a recession, labor shortages could emerge once the economy improves.
''In a bad economy, U.S. workers may temporarily take those jobs that undocumented workers do, but once things turn around, we may see labor shortages if too many foreign workers leave,'' said Tammy Fox-Isicoff, a Miami attorney who specializes in business-related immigration.
Illegal immigrants not leaving the country are traveling to any city, town or region where jobs might be more plentiful. Businesses that depend on foreign labor are already seeing an impact.
PRESSURE ON FARMERS
John Alger, of Alger Farms in Homestead, said South Miami-Dade farmers are not hiring as many migrant workers because the economy is forcing them to reduce the size of the fields they plant.
''Farm owners are planting less because they are selling less, since people are buying less,'' said Alger, whose business is one of South Florida's largest growers of sweet corn and trees for landscaping. ``Nurseries are dying because of the real-estate crisis.''
Last year, at the height of the immigration reform debate, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez warned that without enough foreign workers, landscaping, farms and healthcare companies would suffer.
''We will see rotting fruit,'' Gutierrez said in June 2007. ``We will see lawns that don't get cared for. We will see patients who don't get cared for.''
From Homestead to Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach, the stories of undocumented immigrants confirm the findings of immigration experts that an increasing number of illegal workers are leaving and a decreasing number are arriving.
''The economy is no longer working,'' said William, a 28-year-old Guatemalan who seeks work daily at a laborer pickup site on U.S. 441 near Interstate 595 in Broward County.
He was one of about two dozen undocumented workers interviewed over the past two months in South Florida.
William, who asked that his last name not be published because he feared discovery by authorities, said he was saving money to buy a plane ticket home.
So was Lázaro Rodríguez, of the Mexican border town of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas.
''I used to send about $500 every two weeks home when work was good, but now I send $50 here or $100 there,'' said Rodríguez, 46, who stands at a laborer pickup site in West Miami-Dade, on Bird Road near Florida's Turnpike.
Rodríguez said he doesn't earn enough to send money to his wife and children because he can't find work as easily as when he arrived after crossing the Rio Grande on a smuggler's boat two years ago.
As Gaspar contemplates future possibilities, Tina Reyes -- his wife -- remains in South Miami-Dade with their four children, two born in Mexico and two in Miami.
Reyes hopes that the economy will improve and that President-elect Barack Obama will resurrect immigration reform after taking office.
''For now, all we have is hope,'' she said.
Reyes, who works in a South Miami-Dade nursery, said the economic crisis has eroded her family's income -- from about $800 a week six months ago to less than $300.
''I still have my job, but managers have cut hours,'' Reyes said in an interview at her home, two weeks after her husband had left for Zimatlán de Alvarez.
Jobs started to vanish six months ago.
''Until then, I worked every day,'' she said. ``In recent months, I was only able to work once or twice a week.''
While the case of Gaspar and his family offers only a microscopic example of a larger trend, the departure of foreign workers could further weaken an already ailing economy.
''It's not just the undocumented who are returning home, but also the documented, investors, entrepreneurs and managers of international companies,'' Fox-Isicoff said.
FEAR OF DISCOVERY
Gaspar intends to return to South Florida, but he is not sure that he could sneak across the border as easily as he did in 1996, when he used a migrant smuggler to enter the United States west of Sasabe, across from Arizona.
''My greatest fear is getting caught by immigration authorities after crossing the border,'' he said.
Like Gaspar and his family, most of the undocumented immigrants interviewed had crossed the border with the help of a smuggler, sneaking in near Sasabe.
Gaspar worked in Oregon, picking strawberries, before heading to Florida in 1997.
Within two years, he had saved enough money to bring his family to this country.
Life was hard at first. But problems in adapting to South Florida were outweighed by an increase in family income.
''Back then, there was a lot of work,'' Gaspar recalled. ``When I was by myself, I earned about $300 per week, and when my wife arrived, we doubled our income.''
Residential developments, part of a hot real-estate market, began to swallow farmland.
''The first to disappear were the lemons,'' Gaspar said. ``Then other vegetables vanished. Now, we barely make $150, or less than $300 a week between the two of us.''
By October, Gaspar was back in Zimatlán de Alvarez, taking care of his mother -- and scouting the local job market in case the situation in the United States does not improve.
''If we can no longer make ends meet, we'll come back,'' Gaspar said. "The idea would be to have a plot of land and plant corn, beans or flowers to sell, while my children, who speak English well, work in the tourist hotels."