Immigrants Getting Help To Go Back Home

Sister Margaret Smyth has been working on behalf of immigrants on New York's Long Island for the last 12 years. Recently, her job has taken a different kind of turn: She's helping many undocumented immigrants go home — all the way home to Latin America. Over the past several months, her waiting list has grown. With the impending winter and a terrible job market, there is no money to pay for life in the U.S., let alone a plane ticket.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

On the eastern half of Long Island in the town of Riverhead, Sister Margaret Smyth is serving members of the immigrant community as always. Recently that has meant a new task: helping undocumented workers return to their home countries.

Sarah Reynolds has this report.

SARAH REYNOLDS: Sister Margaret Smyth invites a young man from the waiting room into her office in Riverhead, New York and asks how she can help.

Sister MARGARET SMYTH (North Fork Hispanic Apostolate): (Foreign language spoken)

REYNOLDS: She leans towards him past the piles of paper on her desk and the ringing phone.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

REYNOLDS: Sister Margaret has been working with immigrants on Long Island for 12 years. When she first came to work with the North Fork Hispanic Apostolate, it was only open one day a week. And now she's there almost every day.

Sister SMYTH: We provide immigration services particularly in helping recover lost wages. English is the second language, educate them with the law.

REYNOLDS: Recently, she's added something else to the list, plane tickets. Since October, the number of undocumented immigrants asking for help to get home has skyrocketed. She has a current waiting list of 53. The young man sitting in her office is here for this very reason and he's not the first person today.

Mr. JESUS(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

REYNOLDS: Jesus is looking for a plane ticket home to Guatemala.

Sister SMYTH: (Foreign language spoken)

REYNOLDS: Sister Margaret asks if he has the money.

JESUS: (Foreign language spoken)? No.

REYNOLDS: Jesus and the other immigrants I spoke with asked me not to use their full names because they're in the country illegally. Jesus' roommates have had better luck with work and loan him money for food and rent these days. But now, he's in debt here and it doesn't seem worse than anymore. He's been living in the United States for two years and he hasn't had work since July.

JESUS: (Foreign language spoken)

REYNOLDS: Life is expensive. If you work, you eat. If you don't work, you don't eat. My plan is to return to Guatemala and advise people not to come. It's a lost cause. They should carry on with their life as they can in poverty but at least they are with their family.

JESUS: (Foreign language spoken)

REYNOLDS: Many people are taking Jesus' advice. The undocumented population is a difficult group to track. But according to the Pew Hispanic Center, the unauthorized immigration flow from Mexico to the U.S. has decreased over the past three years. But there is no significant evidence that more undocumented immigrants are leaving the U.S. because of the recession.

Still, since October, Sister Margaret has raised money to send about 100 immigrants home, mostly to Guatemala and Honduras. This is something she used to do very rarely.

Before the economy tanked, she says, most people could make it. But now, they can't keep up with the rent. Most of the immigrants who want to go home come to her as a last resort, usually after months of unemployment.

Sister SMYTH: Going home is a very huge decision. First of all, it's a loss of hope. Most of the people who come in looking for tickets are depressed. Some of them have been here three, four, five, up to eight years. They're making major choices because they can't live on the hope that the economy is going to change and change sufficiently that they're going to pick up jobs.

REYNOLDS: In front of Sister Margaret's office, Marcos(ph) is waiting for a friend. He hasn't made any decisions yet, but he too has thought about going home to Guatemala where his wife and three daughters live off his remittances. He's a landscaper but hasn't had work for a few months. And he can barely pay the $200 monthly rent.

MARCOS: (Foreign language spoken)

REYNOLDS: If I get a few days of work, he says, I can still earn enough money to go home. But you need a lot. Marcos and Jesus say they both have friends who've already left the U.S. because they couldn't find work. For now, Jesus will join Sister Margaret's waiting list. And as the recession shift, unemployed immigrants may continue to consider an early ride home.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Reynolds in New York.

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