Transit officer Salvador Macias Medina parked his car just over the bridge connecting Mexico to El Paso, Texas, poised to help migrants navigate through Ciudad Juárez and to their hometowns for Christmas. "I've been here since 2 p.m. and not a single compatriot has sought help."
Since Dec. 1, the city has been at the ready to help immigrants pass through this rough and tumble town – known for its corruption and crooks – but only 44 cars have sought help, says Mr. Macias Medina. "It's strange," he says. "It must be the recession in the US."
Typically, a million Mexicans head south in December loaded down with toys for Christmas. At home, they receive a hero's welcome for their hard labor and largesse. But this year, with an economic recession, drug war, and tougher border enforcement, fewer cars are rolling through with less bounty to unload.
"For over 70 years, they have come home for Christmas, like Santa Claus to the families and as benefactors of the community," says Rodolfo Garcia Zamora, an economic development and immigration expert at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas. "Now this image, formed during peak economic growth, is being demystified."
On a recent day, the Hernandez family from Oxnard, Calif., parked outside Mexican customs before setting off on their annual trip home to north-central Mexico. This year, their Nissan truck is stuffed with only practical items: heater, baby stroller, tank of gas.
"We usually bring home make-up and perfume and clothes as gifts, but not this year," says Olga Hernandez. "We have no idea what will happen next year. We have to save money to prepare."
Local officials say they expect a drop in migrant visits this year – anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent less. Remittances have also dropped for the first time in 12 years, since records have been kept.
Violence is a key deterrent. Families with relatives living in the US are among the newest targets in the drug war, says Mr. Garcia Zamora. As a result, he says, "they come with less money and prefer to come home in old trucks."
Many Mexicans who are coming home may not return. The national migration institute says that the majority of the 1.2 million migrants returning this Christmas will head back to the US, but even before the holidays some migrants – especially those without documentation – have come home to Mexico. This could turn into an exodus, says Garcia Zamora, if the recession deepens in the US just as Mexico is facing its own economic crunch. "Mexico," he says, "is not prepared to receive them."