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Why former Mexican migrants are staying home

Tougher border enforcement, jail time, and a slow US economy are causing some Mexicans to reconsider going north for work.

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States have also gotten tougher. Gyla Gonzalez, the executive director of Latinos United of Carroll County, a nonprofit group, says that new state laws in Georgia, using driver's licenses and documentation for employment, has scared many migrants away. Attendance at the health clinic their organization runs, she says, is down by more than two-thirds in the past few months; "These types of laws in Georgia are making undocumented immigrants start to leave," she says.

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Enforcement is one factor, the slowing US economy is another. In fact, many analysts say that enforcement would be ineffective if the "American Dream" weren't so elusive today. Hardest hit has been the construction industry, which employs more than 20 percent of Mexican migrants.

"Immigrants are having problems finding jobs, and now that it's more difficult to move around [because of stricter enforcement], employment is even harder," says Guillermo Meneses, an immigration specialist at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. "Both are working against them."

The Pew Hispanic Center recently reported that unemployment is rising among Latino immigrants but it doesn't have any hard data that this is prompting them to exit the US labor force.

In El Gusano, the "data" can be found sitting on the front porches. Normally, at this time of year, Miguel Perez Garcia is in Texas mowing lawns and manicuring shrubs for homes. He spends the spring and summer months in the US before returning to Mexico.

But this year, the permit he has received for the past six seasons never came in the mail.

"I don't know why it didn't come," he says, sitting on his front patio on a recent day with his wife and two teenage children in El Gusano. He says it is too tough to cross the border illegally, so he'll do what he can to remedy the economic shortfall this year and hope for the best next year.

The current situation is unsettling, but some here are appreciating having their men home, even if it means less income. "We forgot about the money," says Teresa Garcia Alvarez, José Balderama's wife, smiling, on a recent day when asked about how they'll make ends meet now.

Residents say that they are seeing a renewed sense of life in communities that can often feel like ghost towns. There is more repartee in the tiny stores where residents meet over a soda. "It's not as quiet here anymore," says Ms. Garcia. "We feel safer."

The men of El Gusano didn't start migrating until about a decade ago, when the bricklayer jobs in nearby Leon disappeared. The exodus – and the cash inflows from the US – have visibly altered the town. Homes of cardboard and metal sheeting were replaced with bricks. Patios were constructed. But, as in the rest of rural Mexico, the migration shattered families.

Will the men coming back stay, and rebuild relationships? Will children have a father around the house? These are questions being asked now by the women of El Gusano.

Garcia says that many of her male relatives have, in the past year, tried to stay home. But in the end, the forces of economic opportunity draw most of them back. She suspects that when the US economy recovers and enforcement wanes, they'll go north again.

Maria de la Luz Uribe's husband was deported in January and vowed to stay put in El Gusano. But a month later, he was back in the US. He couldn't make ends meet working as a bricklayer here.

"I didn't want him to go," she says. And now he wishes he hadn't gone either. After a stint in jail for his undocumented status, and few jobs available, his situation is precarious. He's barely sending any more money home than he was making in Mexico. Now, he tells her that he just has to pay off his smuggling debt. "Then he's coming home," she says.