Immigrants' dilemma: Go or stay

Javier Reyes, who is from Mexico and has lived in the United States for three years, works for Valeria Bayraktar at Los Puentes in North Charleston. Reyes has considered moving back to Mexico to go to school.

In the three years since Javier Reyes moved to North Charleston from Tlaxiaco, Mexico, he has faced a dilemma: Should he stay or should he go?

Like many immigrants from Mexico, he is torn between the two countries by opportunity, economics and family. A study released Wednesday by the Pew Hispanic Center looks at two flows of people: from Mexico to the U.S. and from the U.S. back to Mexico.

The number of Mexicans entering the U.S. in the last year was 636,000, compared with 814,000 from 2007-2008 and 1.3 million from 2006-2007.

Meanwhile, for the last three years, the number of Mexican immigrants returning to Mexico annually has hovered close to 450,000. The U.S. Mexican-born population, which grew early in the decade, has leveled out and sits at 11.5 million.

Reyes, 21, is part of a population group not counted in the study: the ones who are staying put. Factors ranging from the global recession to the watchful eye of Border Patrol are causing some to stay on one side or the other of the Rio Grande.

Arriving in North Charleston with his uncles, Reyes found work at Los Puentes, a Mexican grocery store on Ashley Phosphate Road. His uncles, who came for construction jobs, have found their work becoming scarce since the housing market collapse, but for now Reyes has steady work behind the meat counter.

Still, he thinks about moving back to Tlaxiaco, in the southern state of Oaxaca. With all the experience he's gained at Los Puentes, he could study business at a Mexican university and open his own store there.

For a single man, packing up and heading back home is relatively uncomplicated. But it's not so easy for families, especially ones who entered the country illegally, said Jeffrey Passel, co-author of the Pew report.

"The stereotype is a young guy here by himself," Passel said. "What we're talking about with the undocumented population is family units, and that means that it's going to be a much more momentous and difficult decision."

Passel said only about one quarter of the undocumented Mexican population in the U.S. fits the profile of single males. Many of the rest are part of a family unit.

Still, 433,000 native Mexicans returned to Mexico from the United States last year. Hector Sanchez, a Mexican-American and co-owner of Los Puentes, sees many of them pass through his store. He said he sells four times as many bus tickets to Mexico as he did this time last year.

As for the would-be migrants staying in Mexico, their decision likely has more to do with economics than fear of trouble at the border, said USC-Aiken Professor Elaine Lacy, who has published studies on Latino immigration.

"Migrants have always known that there is danger in coming across the border," Lacy said. "There's enough evidence to indicate that people in Mexico understand that we are in the throes of a recession, and it's hard to get a job."

South Carolina's unemployment rate is 12.3 percent by latest estimates, but the picture might be grimmer for Mexican immigrants. An Economic Policy Institute report showed the nationwide Hispanic jobless rate was one-third higher than the overall rate for all ethnicities in the first quarter of 2009.

Lacy said South Carolina traditionally has had many jobs that attracted workers from Mexico: construction, poultry processing and textile manufacturing. Through the 1990s and peaking around 2000, the state drew immigrants en masse, often after the promise of jobs spread by word of mouth in certain Mexican towns. A large portion of the Mexican community of San Juan Palmira, for instance, lifted up its roots and set itself down in Aiken.

But now that many of those industries have shriveled, the incentive to immigrate to South Carolina is disappearing. And with the cost of hiring a "coyote," or a human smuggler, now ranging from $1,800 to $3,500 by Lacy's estimate, illegal immigration has become a less appealing option.

"Why spend that money if you can't be guaranteed to get a job when you get here?" Lacy said.

At Los Puentes, there are other signs of hard times: People are buying less meat and more beans and rice. Co-owner Valeria Bayraktar remembers in 2001 when she started working at the store and people would come in to wire $500 back home from their first paycheck. These days, the same customers are wiring $40 at a time.

"Now there's no money to spend," said Bayraktar, 31. "There's only the bills."