Saturday, January 03, 2009

Immigration's changing course is story that needs telling

November 11, 2008


A lmost everywhere that Miami Herald reporter Frances Robles and photographer John VanBeekum traveled along the southwest border with Mexico, they found the same ghost-town feel in what once were crowded villages built mostly on the illegal immigration trade.

''Nobody's there,'' said Frances.

Two thousand miles to the east, the tiny Bahamian island of Bimini is equally vacant of the immigrants who once congregated for the short trip to South Florida.

''It's completely empty, like tumbleweeds,'' said reporter Casey Woods, who visited with photographer Charles Trainor Jr.

From one end of the country to the other, one of the longest and most profound immigration flows is experiencing a quiet reversal. The combination of stepped-up border enforcement, aggressive prosecution of illegal immigrants and a weakening U.S. economy has done what decades of debate could not.

A team of Herald reporters and photographers traveled to four countries and throughout the United States to explore the many sides of this story. They followed immigrants as they returned to their home countries, flew on deportation flights that have become a kind of daily airline returning immigrants, and trekked through the farmlands of South Florida and deserts of Arizona to document the impact of this slowdown.

''What they found was, either by their own decisions or by force, many undocumented immigrants are changing course,'' said John Yearwood, The Herald's world editor who directed the project. ``It's the biggest shift we've seen in a long time.''

It's an important story for a country built on immigration and yet often ambivalent about its impacts. Over a generation, new arrivals from Mexico, the Caribbean and throughout Latin America have reshaped this country. Nowhere is that more the case than in South Florida, where millions of legal immigrants and nearly one tenth of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States have settled.

The Miami Herald's series, entitled ''Illegal Immigration: Changing Course,'' explores how this trend plays out in different parts of the country for the many groups of people affected.

Today's stories, the first of four parts that run over two weeks, look at two important issues: departing immigrants and remittances. One story follows a family from Mexico who settled in south Miami-Dade 12 years ago to live off of the farm work that has slowly diminished. The other tracks the slowdown in the flow of money from the United States back to the home countries of immigrants.

This coming Wednesday, a package focuses on changes coming to the country's southwest border. Next Sunday, the story looks at impacts across the Caribbean through the lens of Bimini, which for so long served as the last stop on the way to the United States.

The final piece, running Dec. 10, takes you along on one of the daily deportation flights to Latin America. It's a view that's rarely seen by outsiders.

Much has yet to come clear about the ebbing of immigration. Statistics are hard to document and are often rough estimates. One of the hardest places to measure any slowdown is South Florida. Although changes are already evident in industries like construction and farm work, the influx of immigrants from Haiti and Cuba is driven by factors beyond the economy and continues regardless of the job outlook.

It's almost impossible to keep track of the number of people leaving the United States, although the anecdotal evidence holds that it's a significant development among both illegal and legal immigrants looking for better economic conditions.

But even before the breadth of what's happening is nailed down, the trends raise all sorts of questions that will play out in the near future: How will a major shift in immigration affect a region like South Florida that has been built on the flow of newcomers? How will these changes affect the still-simmering debate over the country's immigration laws? Will immigration pick up again as the U.S. economy improves?

On that last question, interviews across the hemisphere confirm what common sense suggests: The lure of this country's opportunity is still very strong, and many immigrants -- legal and not -- hope to pursue the dream that has fueled the decades of arrivals.

''But it's not going to be a quick turnaround,'' said Nancy San Martin, assistant world editor/Americas, who helped direct the project. ``The people who are leaving, I think we're looking at two to three years before they try again. I think people are very aware the risk of coming here may not have long-term benefits anymore, so they may as well stay home. That's very interesting and very different than it has been for a long time.''

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