The U.S. economic magnet that has been attracting illegal immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries for decades is losing its pull. Instead of a continuing influx of undocumented job seekers, the economy has forced 500,000 to one million of them to turn around and go home. Others like Nicolas are on their way.
As millions of others have done, three years ago Nicolas crossed the border illegally paying a guide $2,000 for the trip. He came across with three of his male cousins. Nicolas doesn't want to be recognized.
"I was with my three cousins, but they already went back to Mexico," says Nicolas.
Three months ago 24-year-old Nicolas and his cousins lost their construction jobs. The work had helped Nicolas support his invalid father and sick mother in Chiapas, Mexico. He's the youngest of nine children.
"My parents got sick. My father has had two appendix operations that haven't gone well and my mother is very ill. That's why I came to the U.S. to help give them money," says Nicolas.
He can't afford to stay in San Francisco. He's headed back to Mexico soon to work his parents' farm.
In California, lower paid illegals have harvested, cooked in restaurants, bussed tables, worked construction and helped remodel homes or landscape. Tomas Jimenez, Ph.D., is an Irvine fellow and a sociology associate professor at Stanford University. He studies immigration trends.
"We have less of an ability to afford these services. Because of that they go back and so at some point the number we will need will find its own level," says Jimenez.
The Center for Immigration Studies in Washington D.C. says that from August 2007 to May 2008 the illegal population in the U.S. dropped 11 percent to a total of 1.3 million people. They estimate there are still 11.3 million illegals in the U.S.
The center claims that voluntary returnees to Mexico are seven times more than those deported by I.C.E., Immigration Control and Enforcement, during the same period.
The Pew Hispanic Center, a non-partisan think tank, disputes the number of illegals leaving the U.S., saying only about 500,000 are repatriating.
Most immigration researchers say that illegal immigrants who have been here for a number of years and have started families will most likely try and ride out this economic slump. But the younger, more recent arrivals may just try their fortunes back across the boarder.
"We don't have specific information or sound statistical information that tells us that we are facing a massive return of migrants to Mexico," says Juan Manuel Sanchez, from the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco.
So far this year Sanchez's consulate has only seen 78 families seeking official documents so they can legally return to Mexico. He believes only a small number will actually try their fortunes back in Mexico.
"We think at the moment we will have a way to accommodate them," says Sanchez.
Professor Jimenez says although illegal immigration is cyclical according to harvests and construction, there will be fewer undocumented immigrants in the U.S. for the near future.
"Every indication is that there are fewer people coming in," says Jimenez.
Researchers don't know what will happen when the U.S. economy improves and the cheap labor these individuals have provided is not readily available. Will that cause an economic slowdown or provide more jobs for U.S. residents?