Economic downturn prompts reverse immigration wave - 13 WTHR Indianapolis

Economic downturn prompts reverse immigration wave

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Gloria Guillen Gloria Guillen
Guillen is a pastoral associate at St. Anthony's Catholic Church in Indianapolis. Guillen is a pastoral associate at St. Anthony's Catholic Church in Indianapolis.
The number of Hispanic students at IPS has grown dramatically in 17 years. The number of Hispanic students at IPS has grown dramatically in 17 years.
The majority of the 3,700 ESL students in IPS schools are also of the grade school range. The majority of the 3,700 ESL students in IPS schools are also of the grade school range.
Vanessa Pinna/

Indianapolis - As an accountant in Guadalajara, Mexico, Gloria Guillen earned an average of $4 a day. When the pay became too little to support her growing family, she made her dream of emigrating to the United States a reality. Now a U.S. citizen for 11 years, Guillen explains what drove her to leave her home country and adopt the USA as her own.

"We heard that there were more job opportunities in Indianapolis," said Guillen, now a pastoral associate at St. Anthony's Catholic Church in Indianapolis. "We heard that it was a good place to raise children, that it was a quiet city and that the houses were cheap."

Guillen was part of a large immigration wave from Latin American countries that began in the early 1990s after the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was signed by President Reagan. While significant numbers of immigrants from Mexico, South America, Central America, and the Caribbean had already taken their stake in American soil, the unprecedented number of new immigrants arriving from these nations after amnesty was granted initiated one of the largest population booms the United States had seen in decades. Of the steady stream of those emigrating, Mexico was the primary source.

Now as Hispanic businesses line Indiana streets and the majority of public signs read "Welcome" as well as "Bienvenido," this population appears only to be growing. Since 2000, over half of Indiana's 92 counties have had a Hispanic population boom of 100% or more. Despite such signs, however, Indiana is also home to a population in distress. In 2008, Mexican census data reported that 186,000 fewer Mexicans left their home nation for other countries, indicating a 22% decline from the previous year. Of their sought-after destinations, the U.S. is consistently the top choice and the one most impacted by the decline.

As the federal minimum wage increased from $6.55 to $7.25 per hour on July 24th, 2009, minimum wage in Mexico remained at 53 pesos a day, or $3.98 daily. The average entry-level salary for Guillen's former occupation, an accountant, is $1,363 in Mexico, whereas the average entry-level salary for an American accountant is $35,000. The American average is expected to increase by 18% between 2010 and 2016.

Some people say, 'Okay, maybe I won't be an accountant in the United States, but I'll still make a better salary there than in Mexico,'" said Guillen.

"There isn't anything over there," said Tania Garcia, 22, of Mexico. "That's why people come to the United States."

Family ties

According to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography of Mexico, 59% of Mexicans who emigrate make an international relocation. Of those making an international move, 25.6% do so for labor reasons, and 24.9% are for familial reasons.

"One comes to the United States so that the family doesn't suffer," explained Juan Ojeda Ramirez, an immigrant from Chihuahua, Mexico. "It's difficult to stay there and see the suffering. I came here to earn a little bit more than I can in Mexico."

Family ties are strong in Mexico. While emigrating to the United States means separation from the family, it also ensures a higher salary and money to send back home.

"Everything is for the family in Mexico," said Hugo Delgado de la Paz, owner of Fiesta Ranchera Mexican Restaurant on the South side of Indianapolis. "At the beginning of each month, my brothers and I each send $100 dollars to our family in Mexico. Half of our pay goes to rent, and the other is for the family," he explained.

In Indiana alone, Mexican immigrants sent $181,946,600 to Mexico in 2004, indicating that each immigrant sent back an average of $2,084.

"They pack up their cars and go."

Despite such statistics, however, a recent trend of Mexican immigrants opting to return to Mexico or choosing simply to never emigrate to the U.S at all has been occurring both locally and nationally.

"Many of my friends have left Indiana, and they have gone quite far. They pack up their cars and they go. That's all, they leave Indiana and they don't say anything to anyone," said Juan Ojeda Ramirez.

Reasons for the recent decline in Mexican immigration have been speculated on by both experts and immigrants themselves, and they run the gamut.

Russ Dodge, the general manager of Mexican radio station 107.1 WEDJ, says the Mexican immigrants are "Just like any other group of people." "They go where the jobs are, just like those in the auto industry are doing at the moment," he said. "The moves are very seasonal, and are often inspired by word of mouth. One person alone could tell 100 others about work elsewhere."

Discrimination has also been cited as another reason why a small percentage of immigrants are leaving.

"I was talking with my brother who's been here 20 years, and he told me, 'In a couple of years I am going to leave my car dealership behind, and go back to Mexico,'" remembered Gloria Guillen. "He says he doesn't like the way people treat him here."

Guillen, a U.S. citizen since 1998, remembers what it was like as the Mexican immigrant population first began to grow in the St. Anthony's Parish area. "It was very difficult because you got the feeling that people didn't want you there. You would smile and say, 'Hi, how are you?' and they wouldn't smile back."

St. Anthony's parish is currently 80% Latino, with 85% of its total Latino population hailing from Mexico. It hosts three Spanish masses weekly performed by a predominately Spanish-speaking clergy, and offers bilingual sacramental preparation.

Despite the Latino predominance, an insulting epithet remains etched on the church's sidewalk, implying tensions that remain in the community. "The roots are still being different," admitted Guillen.

Other immigrants claim that tougher law enforcement has had an impact on the decline. "I have friends and family who have had bad encounters with the cops here, explained Tania Garcia. "My sister was born here and is a legal citizen. One time she was pulled over but happened to be without her driver's license. When she explained that to the officer, he doubted her and insisted that she must be here illegally."

"In the state of Indiana, you have to be a legal resident to get a driver's license," said Sgt. Matthew Mount, IMPD. "Those who operate a vehicle without a driver's license will be issued a citation and treated just like anyone else. IMPD does not have the power to deport. That would be U.S. Immigration and Customs enforcement."

Ojeda Ramirez doesn't believe it's a law enforcement issue. "The main reason people leave is the economy," he explains. "The police here are good people."

Change of fate

A year after the current economic recession began in December of 2007, the Pew Hispanic Center released a report focusing on the effects of the recession on construction. The results showed a significant decline in the percentage of Latino immigrants active in the housing industry, and noted that Latino workers' outcomes had began to worsen even prior to the recession.

"For the past three years, everything has been more difficult," remarked Ojeda Ramirez. "There is no work, and everything is getting more and more expensive. I used to be able to buy gold jewelry and enjoy hot water, but now I can't afford hot water or buy nice things," he said.

"It's much more difficult for the Latinos who don't have papers," said Tania Garcia. "If they leave their jobs, they could end up unemployed for a while. If you leave your job for a better one but you have papers, you leave and you keep on going."

With many Latino-dominated work forces struggling amid the recession, immigrant workers are facing increased difficulty in landing jobs. While manual labor and jobs in the service industry are the most sought after by this demographic, hopes for a brighter future once existed for many.

"No hope for anything"

Scattered on a map outlining the IPS district, blue and red dots representing English as a Second Language students in IPS schools during the 1992-1993 school year appear few and far between. As the maps representing each year's worth of IPS ESL students progress, the blue and red dots begin to cover the entire district, depicting a vast demographic change in 17 years.
"When I first started this position in 1992, there were 368 ESL students," said Marilee Updike, IPS English as a Second Language Coordinator. "That was nothing. We now have about 3,700 ESL students in IPS, and the majority are from Mexico."

The majority of the 3,700 ESL students in IPS schools are also of the grade school range. "We suspect that there are more older students than we would want to think about," admitted Updike. "Depending on how old they are though, we never see them. If they came here looking for work, and they are 14 or 15 years old, they're not interested in going to school."

In comparison to other ethnic groups, Latinos in Indianapolis have had the highest drop-out rates since 1972. "Try talking them into doing this when there's no hope of anything afterwards," said Updike. "It's kind of hard to do when they could be making money or doing something else."

While the number of Mexican IPS students in the high school range is low, Updike explains that the students are goal-oriented people. "I think they are hoping to attend college, but the future for them is not bright if they do not have a road to citizenship," she explains. "We have vocational education programs here, but many require taking a test which requires a social security number, that is state statute."

Tania Garcia has personally felt the effects of this statute. "I went to beauty school to become a nail technician. I performed my required hours of practice, went to class and took the final test, but I couldn't get my license because I didn't have a social security number," she said. "It's ugly."

The DREAM of citizenship

In hopes of creating a road to citizenship, Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) have sponsored the Development, Relief, and Education for Minors Act, also known as the DREAM act. Additional supporters of the DREAM act are Indiana Senators Richard Lugar (R), Evan Bayh (D), and Representative Andre Carson (D).

If the bill is passed, students who were under the age of 16 when they came to the U.S., have graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED, are between the ages of 12 and 35, and have been here for five or more years would be eligible for conditional status for six years while they would be required to complete at least two years toward a 4-year degree or serve two years in the U.S. military. During these six years, qualified individuals would be able to apply for in-state tuition, student loans, and Work-Study status. After completion, they would receive permanent residency.

"Our senators have been on the bandwagon, both of them," said Updike. "That's what needs to happen if we can't keep kids in school because they see no point in graduating. The DREAM act would allow these kids to go to school and earn their citizenship. It would keep more of them in school, and we need to keep them in school."

As the bill remains in Congress, however, many young Mexican immigrants continue to make the decision between receiving an education or directly integrating into the work force. As these young adults also experience the same economic pressures as those many years older, both age groups face the decision to stay amongst the ailing economy of the U.S., or return to their homeland of Mexico.

"I can't do it anymore."

After two months of living without electricity, hot water, or a functioning stove, Ojeda Ramirez realized that he could no longer survive in the United States. "I wish I could stay here, but I can't do it anymore. I am not trying to steal, but I cannot pay my bills when there isn't any work," he explained. "My mother remains back in Mexico. She is very old, but she is all I have. If I cannot survive here, I want to be in Mexico with her."

Gloria Guillen has witnessed fellow parishioners leave the United States for the same reason. "I ask those who say they are returning to their home countries, 'Why do you want to go back to your country if it is worse there than here?,' and the response I often get is, 'If I am going to suffer here and I am going to suffer in Mexico, I would rather suffer with my family back in Mexico'," she said.

While many Mexican immigrants such as Tania Garcia and Gloria Guillen have plans to remain in the United States, immigrants such as Hugo Delgado de la Paz insist that they will return to Mexico one day, regardless of either nation's economic state. "I don't want to stay here forever," claims Delgado de la Paz. "If you ask, the majority of Mexicans will tell you that they hope to retire in Mexico."

Similarly, Marilee Updike adds, "A lot of them [IPS Mexican families] want to go back, but I think it depends on where you are in life. Many of our families move over the summer, so we will have to see what happens in the fall."

Gloria Guillen remarked, "We had some families that were here with us, and they are now in Mexico especially." As tears flooded her eyes, she added, "We keep very good memories of them-- and we miss them."

While the future of this community remains unknown, some Mexican immigrants feel that immigration will eventually halt completely. "In the future, I don't think there will be anymore Mexicans coming to America," commented Ojeda Ramirez. "Besides," he chuckled, "there's already far too many of us."

Some names have been changed in this story to protect interviewees' identities.

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