Immigrants Return Home

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This time of year, many Latin American immigrants return home for the holidays. But the failing economy in the United States is sending many immigrants home for good. Mark Lopez, Associate Director of the Pew Hispanic Center and Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America's Voice Online, discuss the growing migration out of the US. And Manuel Uriarte, a travel agent in Falls Church, Va., shares his first hand experience helping people make an exit.

CHERYL Corley, host:

I'm Cheryl Corley in for Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, enjoy now, suffer later. Our money gurus tell us how to avoid credit cards being the bane of your existence. But first, heightened immigration enforcement and increased overall unemployment are prompting some Latin American immigrants to return home, and not just for the holidays. Joining us to discuss the recession's impact on the Latino immigrant community are Mark Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center; Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice Online; and Mauricio Uriarte, manager of the AB City(ph) Travel Agency outside of Washington, D.C. And all our guests are in D.C., joining me. Welcome to the show today.

Mr. MARK H. LOPEZ (Associate Director, Pew Hispanic Center): Thank you.

Mr. FRANK SHARRY (Founder and Executive Director, America's Voice Online): Thanks for having us.

Mr. MANUEL URIARTE (Manager, AB City Travel Agency, Falls Church, Virginia): Thank you.

CORLEY: Well, Mark, why don't we begin with you? Because the Pew Hispanic Center recently released a report detailing how Latinos are being affected by the recession.

Mr. LOPEZ: OK.

CORLEY: Can you briefly tell us, what were the findings of the report?

Mr. LOPEZ: Well, a couple of things. First, in another report, we had found that the number of undocumented immigrants in the country seems to have dropped from 12.4 million to 11.9 million this year. But on top of that, another thing that we've noticed is that there's actually been less labor-force participation on the part of foreign-born Hispanics. Their participation rate dropped from about 72.4 percent in the third quarter of 2007 to 71.3 percent in the third quarter of 2008. Now, what does that translate to? That actually translates to about 200,000 fewer foreign-born Hispanics actually in the labor market. That means they actually withdrew from the labor market and are no longer looking for work. So, this seems to suggest that there's been some sort of a slowing down at the very least in the number of undocumented immigrants in the country, in addition to fewer foreign-born Hispanics working in the labor market.

CORLEY: So, you're not saying that people just aren't looking for work; they're just not here? Or what exactly?

Mr. LOPEZ: They've actually withdrawn from the labor market, so they're neither holding a job, nor even looking for work. So, they're still here in the country, but they haven't - they're not participating in the labor market in any way, shape or form.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm, mm-hm. Frank, during this political season there have been some very harsh anti-immigration rhetoric, and I was wondering if you thought this economic recession will dampen those sentiments or not.

Mr. SHARRY: Well, usually in an economic downturn, you have an increase in xenophobia. But I think this last election may defy that history, because the anti-immigrant wedge issue that many Republicans tried to use backfired spectacularly. We tracked 22 races in which a Democrat in favor of comprehensive reform - which means that it includes a path to earn citizenship for those here illegally, what Republicans often decry as amnesty - that in 22 head-to-head races with a Democrat or Republican, a Republican taking a hard line, saying no amnesty, enforcement only, the Democrat won 20 of the 22 races. So, I think what you're seeing is that the hard-line voter has a loud bark but not a big bite, when it comes to the election.

On the other side, you had Latino voters, particularly Latino immigrant voters, turn out in record numbers and shift quite dramatically from their support of President Bush in 2004 to President-elect Obama in 2008. So, I think the politics of immigration have changed significantly as a result of this election, where I think Democrats are realizing they have more space to operate and Republicans realize that they may have made an error of historic proportions in demonizing immigrants.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm. I wonder - Manuel, I'll get you into this conversation. And it's Manuel, not Mauricio, as I understand, correct?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. URIARTE: That's correct.

CORLEY: But before I do, Mark, you talked a little bit about the numbers, so I want to track back to that. Is there any clear evidence that the recession has caused an increase in Latino immigrants deciding to head back home?

Mr. LOPEZ: We haven't seen any hard data on that just yet, but that's only because it's very hard to measure this. We don't have any surveys which actually ask folks, are you returning home because the economic situation is worse? But it does seem like there's some evidence that suggests that with the withdrawal from the labor market, and also, with the slowdown in growth in the number of undocumented immigrants in the country, that actually, yes, it looks like it's possible that some folks are either deciding to potentially go home or maybe have already gone home.

I would also add that - one other piece of information is that many central banks in Latin America suggest that either there's been a decline, an outright decline, in the number of remittances sent home - in the Bank of Mexico, for example, says that remittances are down 7.3 percent over last year - or there's been a slowdown in the growth in the number of remittances being sent home. So, everything seems to indicate that the economic slowdown is affecting immigrant workers here in the United States.

CORLEY: So, less money going back in (unintelligible)...

Mr. LOPEZ: Yes.

CORLEY: Manuel, you've worked at a travel agency. I was wondering how the recession has affected your sales. What have you been seeing?

Mr. URIARTE: Well, we've seen a decrease on sales, but we've also seen it for the first time - I've been here since the '70s.

CORLEY: Really?

Mr. URIARTE: A lot of families and single people are buying tickets one way. They don't want to come back to United States because of the economic situation - a lot of them lost their job; they lost their houses - and also because they feel there's no safety net. And many of them say, if I'm going to be poor, I rather be poor in my country and not in United States, because not working. And many communities, like Prince William and Fairfax County, they feel that the immigrant community is not working here.

CORLEY: Really?

Mr. URIARTE: Yes.

CORLEY: Uh-huh. All right. Well, if you are just joining us, this is Tell Me More. I'm Cheryl Corley. I'm speaking to Mark Lopez, Frank Sharry and Manuel Uriarte about how the recession is affecting Latinos here in the U.S. Manuel, you talked a little bit about what people are saying when they're buying this one-way ticket. Any more stories you can tell us? And does it vary depending on what country they're traveling back to?

Mr. URIARTE: I've seen different people. Some people are going back to Peru, Bolivia, El Salvador. Some people, the Salvadorians, have something called TPS, which is a temporary permission to be in United States, and they're not allowed to go back to the country. So, many of them have taken the risk of going back, and probably they will not be allowed to come back into United States. We had a family that tried to go back to Bolivia, and we give them a time, about two months, to pay the ticket. And they came back and they said, look, I don't have the money to pay because I lost my job. All my checks have bounced; I lost my home; I don't know what to do now. And we're seeing that more often now, and we had never seen them before.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm. How dependent are the folks back home? And maybe, Mark or Frank, you can talk about this, how dependent folks are really on this money coming back from the United States, and how is this recession really hurting folks who are back in the other countries?

Mr. LOPEZ: It's - the remittances that are sent home can be very important for folks in home countries, particularly for Mexico, as an example. We've seen the growth in the number of remittances sent to Mexico just skyrocket over the last 10 years or so. And now, since we're seeing - now that we are beginning to see some sort of a pullback on the number of remittances sent home, my suspicion is that this is actually having a tremendous impact on folks back home. We don't know for sure exactly, because we haven't done any surveys of folks in the source countries, but my guess is that it's having a tremendous impact.

CORLEY: We had - I know that for awhile there was some controversy over some steps being taken about the seizure of money that was being sent back home - in Arizona, in particular. And I was wondering if any of you have any information about, you know, where that stands, or if people are having problems at all sending remittances back home.

Mr. SHARRY: This is Frank Sharry. There has been, as a part of a rash of local and state initiatives, ordinances and policies designed to make life difficult, if not unbearable, for immigrants. There've been a number of very hard-edged policy proposals, some of which have been enacted and some of which have not. The idea of taxing remittances has been an idea that has been floated in a couple of states, but it's never been enacted. What many states have done, however, is to encourage police, when they make routine stops, to ask for immigration papers, something that has made life very difficult in those areas which are practicing that and very much undermining the community-policing ethos that has been responsible for crime reduction in the last quarter of a century. So, it's a very controversial policy.

And in Arizona, you have a sheriff named Joe Arpaio who has become infamous as the Bull Connor of our generation. He literally has - he recruits volunteer vigilantes to go out on what he calls crime-suppression sweeps, where basically they stop Latinos and ask them for immigration papers. It's created quite an atmosphere of siege in immigrant communities in places like Maricopa County in Arizona, Prince William County in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, other states that have initiated such policies.

CORLEY: Well, Frank - go ahead, go ahead, I'm sorry.

Mr. LOPEZ: Cheryl, this is Mark. I was going to add that one piece of information that we have from the Pew Hispanic Center is that we did a survey of Hispanics this past year, and one of the questions we asked was, had you been stopped by the local police or other authorities and asked about your immigration status? And nine percent of all Latinos had been stopped. But when we looked at it by native-born and foreign-born, 10 percent of the foreign-born said that they had been stopped, but eight percent of the native-born said that they had been stopped and asked about their immigration status. So, it looks like these enforcement measures are perhaps not only impacting the foreign-born, but also the native-born Hispanics as well.

CORLEY: During the race for president, the Obama campaign promised comprehensive immigration reform within a year of taking office. Frank, are - you think that will happen? Do you see any indications? I know the president-elect hasn't taken office yet, but are you hopeful with that?

Mr. SHARRY: We are, we are. We're very hopeful. We have every confidence that he's going to keep his promise to move on immigration reform in the first year. Clearly, it's not going to be something he takes up in the first few months, given the priority of economic recovery and healthcare reform and so forth. But we expect that in the fall of 2009 there will be a push to enact immigration reform. I think it will be a different version of reform than we've seen in the past. In the past, there - part of the one element that President Bush and Republicans pushed strongly was the idea of some sort of increase in temporary work visas to meet labor-market demands. I think, given rising unemployment and the economic downturn, you're not going to see much, if any, in the way of new visas for workers. Perhaps some green cards for some highly skilled, but even that's debatable.

I think what you're really going to see is a combination of getting tough on employers who hire illegally and take advantage of scared and undocumented workers, and we'll crack down there, and an effort to bring the folks who are here illegally into the system, make sure they get legal, pay taxes, get screened, and get to the back of the citizenship line. So, I think that combination has a real chance of being enacted in the first two years of the Obama administration.

CORLEY: All right, well, thank you so much. Frank Sharry is executive director of America's Voice Online; Mark Lopez is associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center; and Manuel Uriarte manages a travel agency called, AB City, right outside of D.C. Thank you so much gentlemen for joining me.

Mr. LOPEZ: Thank you.

Mr. SHARRY: Thank you.

Mr. URIARTE: Thank you.

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