NOGALES, Sonora – It’s a common scene this time of year: streams of overloaded cars, pickups and vans with U.S. license plates crossing into Mexico for the holidays.
Most are filled with Hispanic families from Arizona and other states on their way to visit relatives south of the border for a few weeks before heading back to the U.S. But this year, the holiday travelers are being joined by scores of families such as Jorge and Liliana Franco, who are driving to Mexico not to visit but to stay – permanently.
Congress’ failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform, immigration crackdowns, Arizona’s new employer-sanctions law and a sluggish economy have combined to create a climate families such as the Francos no longer find hospitable.
The number returning to Mexico is difficult to calculate, but there is no question that many families are leaving, according to Mexican government officials, local community leaders and immigrants themselves.
“The situation in Arizona has become very tough,” Jorge said minutes after driving into a Mexican immigration and customs checkpoint south of the border on Mexico 15.
Dozens of immigrants are leaving the U.S. daily, and even more are expected to leave once the sanctions law takes effect in January, provided the law survives a last-minute legal challenge, said Rosendo Hernandez, president of the advocacy group Immigrants Without Borders.
“If people can’t find work, they won’t be able to pay their bills, so they will leave,” Hernandez said.
In what are considered bellwethers of permanent moves back to Mexico, the Mexican consulate in Phoenix has seen a dramatic increase in applications for Mexican birth certificates, passports and other documents that immigrants living in Arizona will need to return home.
In November alone, the consulate processed 240 applications for Mexican birth certificates, three times as many as the same month last year, said Carlos Flores Vizcarra, Mexican consul general of Phoenix.
The consulate also has processed more than 16,500 applications for Mexican passports this year, nearly twice as many as last year. Vizcarra attributed some of the demand for passports to stricter travel regulations among the U.S., Mexico and Canada slated to take effect in January. But he said many illegal immigrants are applying for passports in case they lose their jobs due to the sanctions law or a slowdown in the economy and therefore want to go back and live in Mexico.
“People are fearful. They are getting ready as much as they can (to leave),” he said.
Mexican officials and border authorities expect southbound traffic to rise significantly this week as Christmas approaches.
The exodus has drawn cheers from foes of illegal immigration.
“That is the whole purpose of the (sanctions) law,” said state Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, “to not only stop people from coming, but to have these who are here illegally go back to whence they came. They shouldn’t be here.”
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates there are 500,000 illegal immigrants in Arizona, and they make up about 9 percent of the state’s population. Illegal immigrants make up 10 percent to 12 percent of the work force, according to Pew and the Center for Immigration Studies.
The economy could be devastated if all were to leave, advocates say. But Kavanagh, one of the most outspoken backers of the sanctions law, doubts the law will have much impact on Arizona’s economy. He hopes any economic problems caused by illegal immigrants leaving Arizona will pressure Congress to create a guest-worker program to allow more foreign-born workers to enter legally to help fill labor gaps.
But unlike illegal immigrants, guest workers will enter in “an orderly and legal fashion with screening,” he said.
Leaving for good
On Mexico 15 on the outskirts of Nogales, Son., the Francos were getting ready for the final leg of their journey from Arizona to Ciudad Obregon, their hometown six hours south of the border.
Jorge, 34, was driving an extended-cab Ford F-150 pickup that was so overloaded with the family’s belongings that the vehicle no longer looked safe for highway travel. The bed of the pickup sagged under the weight of a full-size refrigerator, an air-conditioning unit, a television and a microwave oven, while the Francos’ three young children grew restless inside the cab.
Franco’s wife, Liliana, 25, drove a second vehicle. Her Dodge minivan was packed just as full, with clothing, toys and household items. Several suitcases that didn’t fit inside had been lashed to the roof.
Living in Wickenburg
The couple said they had lived in Wickenburg for the past five years. They and their two children had originally entered the United States legally with tourist visas and then stayed beyond the expiration dates. The couple had no legal status to work in the U.S., but both were able to get jobs using fake documents, Jorge at a small landscaping company, Liliana at a Burger King. Two years ago, their third child, Michael, was born in Arizona, making him a U.S. citizen.
The couple said life for them in Arizona began to unravel earlier this year when Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform. The collapse caused the Francos to give up hope that Congress would pass a legalization program anytime soon. Then, Gov. Janet Napolitano signed Arizona’s employer-sanctions law.
The law threatens to suspend or revoke business licenses from employers caught knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. It also requires employers to use a federal computer program to electronically verify the employment eligibility of new hires.
The law takes effect Jan. 1, and several business groups are suing to have the law tossed out, claiming it is unconstitutional. Nevertheless, thousands of illegal immigrants have been let go as worried employers conduct reviews of I-9s, the federal forms employers are required to use to verify the employment eligibility of their workers.
In November, employers checked the Francos’ employment records and discovered they had used false documents to get their jobs, the couple said. Both were let go.
The Francos tried getting other jobs but were turned down every place they applied.
“Everyone wants a good Social Security number now,” Liliana said.
The couple said a crackdown on illegal immigration by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio also prompted them to move back to Mexico. Sheriff’s deputies trained to enforce immigration laws have been arresting illegal immigrants in the Wickenburg area, and the couple feared their family would be split apart if one of them got deported.
Earlier this month, they sold their trailer home in Wickenburg and began packing their bags. They also took their oldest child, Yulissa, 7, a second-grader at Hassayampa Elementary School, out of school.
What did they plan to do for work in Mexico?
Jorge shook his head. He didn’t know. Then, after clearing immigration and customs, the couple climbed back inside the pickup and the minivan and drove back onto the highway, headed south.