Many undocumented immigrants leave the United States after decades

In August 2021, more than three decades after sneaking across the southern border as young adults to work in Mexico and support their families, Irma and Javier Hernandez checked into La Guardia Airport for a one-way flight from New York to Oaxaca a. They left behind four American children, stable jobs where they were valued employees, and a country to love.

But after years of living in the United States without legal status, the couple had decided it was time to return home. Ms. Hernandez’s mother was 91, and they feared she might die — as did Ms. Hernandez’s father and in-laws — before they met again. With dollars saved, they had built a small house to live in and invested in a tortilleria to run. Their children, now young adults, were able to fend for themselves.

“God only knows how hard we worked day in and day out in New York,” said Ms. Hernandez, 57. “We’re still young enough to continue there, but ultimately we made the difficult decision to return.”

The Hernandezes are part of a wave of immigrants who have left the United States and returned to their countries of origin in recent years, often after spending most of their lives as undocumented workers. Some of them never intended to stay in the United States, but said the costs and dangers of crossing the border kept them here once they arrived – and built a life for themselves. Now middle-aged and still able to work, many are making a reverse migration.

Mexicans, who represent the largest and most transformative migration to the United States in modern history, began a gradual return more than a decade ago, with improvements in Mexico’s economy and shrinking job opportunities in the United States during the last recession.

But emigration has accelerated recently, beginning with the anti-immigrant crackdown under the Trump administration and continuing under President Biden, as many older people decide they have achieved their original immigration goals and can afford to trading the often grueling work available to undocumented workers for a slower pace in their home country.

Her departure is one of many factors that have helped keep the total number of undocumented immigrants in the country relatively stable, despite a spate of arrested migrants at the southern border that reached two million last year.

“It’s a myth that everyone comes here and nobody ever leaves,” said Robert Warren, a senior visiting fellow at the Center for Migration Studies, a think tank that recently wrote a report on the trend.

“There are a lot of people who are leaving the country, and they are leaving the country voluntarily,” said Mr. Warren, one of several demographers including academics from Emory University, Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles documenting the trend.

The current undocumented population has remained relatively constant at around 10.2 million in recent years, after peaking at almost 12 million in 2008, despite the large number of new arrivals at the border.

An emergency health regulation issued to slow the transmission of the coronavirus has allowed border authorities to quickly expel more than 2.5 million of the newcomers since 2020; Hundreds of thousands of others were allowed to enter the country during this time. But a largely voluntary exodus of other immigrants has kept the overall population relatively stable, demographers say. (While deportations accelerated under both the Obama and Trump administrations, these numbers were too small to be a significant factor.)

The number of undocumented migrants from about a dozen countries, including Poland, the Philippines, Peru, South Korea and Uruguay, fell by 30 percent or more from 2010 to 2020.

The number of undocumented migrants from Mexico, the main source of immigrants to the United States, fell to 4.4 million from 6.6 million during that period.

Declines were recorded in all but two states during the decade, down 49 percent in New York; 40 percent in California, which lost 815,000 Mexicans; 36 percent in Illinois; and 20 percent or 267,000 in Texas. The data suggests these residents did not move to other states but returned to their home countries, Mr. Warren said.

Undocumented immigration has long seen ebbs and flows. People are leaving their homes in response to push factors such as financial hardship, drought, and escalating violence, as well as pull factors in the United States, primarily jobs and safe havens.

The number of undocumented Polish immigrants has halved from 2010 to 2019 amid improving conditions in Poland. Brazilians returned in large numbers as their country’s economy thrived, thanks to a food export boom and successful bids to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, fueling a construction boom.

Rubén Hernández-León, a sociologist at UCLA who has conducted field research among Mexicans who have returned home, said the main reason people left the United States was a desire to reunite their families.

Former President Donald J. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, coupled with his administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration, has caused concern that has also prompted some undocumented migrants, particularly Mexicans, to leave the country, Mr Hernández-León said.

Returning home has always been a feature of migration between Mexico and the United States. For a long time, mostly men traveled alone between their villages and the United States, earning dollars during stays lasting months.

This circular migration was turned on its head in the early 1990s when the United States introduced a series of measures to fortify the border, erect barriers, and deploy more agents.

But the border restrictions backfired. After facing risks and paying smugglers to cross the border, undocumented workers stayed in the United States rather than coming and going.

“Most never wanted to stay. We taped the works when we militarized the border,” said Douglas S. Massey, an immigration scholar at Princeton. “They were always living longer and having families.”

Now, he said, census data suggest many of them are choosing to go home.

“If you have savings and a house in Mexico, you can retire there,” he said. “Her US-born children are now old enough to fend for themselves and can go back and forth to visit her.”

Ms. Hernandez left her Mexican pueblo in 1987 “por la necesidad,” she said.

In New York, she settled with families in Manhattan as a nanny and sent money home. She fell in love with Javier, a fellow Oaxacan who had immigrated around the same time and was just learning the art of making pizza. They married and their first child, Jennifer, was born in 1992.

With no legal status and with borders increasingly barricaded, the Hernandezes could not risk leaving the United States.

Mr. Hernandez’s parents died and he mourned their deaths from afar as he was unable to attend their funerals. Ms. Hernandez’s father died.

“Years passed and we entertained hopes that we could secure papers to move freely between the two countries,” Ms. Hernandez said.

The last amnesty program, passed by Congress in 1986, allowed 2.3 million Mexicans to legalize their status. Since then, Democrats and Republicans have consistently failed to reach consensus on another immigration reform bill.

For Mr. and Ms. Hernandez, years in the United States turned into decades. Along the way, the couple had a son, and then a set of twins.

Jennifer eventually attended the Divinity School at Harvard University and then returned to New York to work for Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy group. Her three younger siblings finished high school. By the time she turned 21, Jennifer was able to sponsor her parents for green cards, but they quickly realized it was a process that would take more than a decade.

“We started having this really serious conversation about going back so my mom could have time with her mom before she died,” Jennifer said.

The couple figured they could make ends meet by selling the corn, cabbage and herbs grown on their small piece of land in Mexico and the tortillas from the recently acquired factory. Their now grown children assured them that they could support them if needed. But it was a heartbreaking decision – although the couple had always thought of going home.

The children Mrs. Hernandez had raised as a nanny in New York were desperate.

“It took a year for us to pull the trigger,” Jennifer said.

All four of the Hernandez children joined their parents on the plane to Oaxaca, and after settling into the house there, they all went on their first-ever family vacation, a week on a Mexican beach. Then the kids boarded a flight back to the United States.

“We cried all the way to New York,” Jennifer recalls. “It’s been a year and a half now and it’s still very difficult,” she said, her voice cracking.

Ms. Hernandez said she still hopes to one day return to New York, at least for longer visits, when Jennifer is eventually able to secure green cards for the couple.

“I have my children there, and one day they will have children,” she said. “I will want to take care of my grandchildren.” Many undocumented immigrants leave the United States after decades

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