SAN JUAN ALOTENANGO, Guatemala — In 2004, Ambrosio Carrillo made a perilous and illegal journey to the U.S. in search of opportunity. Earlier this year, he made the equally wrenching decision to return home.
Once a construction worker earning about $15 an hour in Maryland, Mr. Carrillo barely worked in the fall of 2007 as plentiful jobs evaporated. As winter set in, the illegal immigrant, who had mastered masonry, carpentry and drywalling in the U.S., didn’t land a job for two months. There was no money to send to his wife and three children in Guatemala.
So in January, Mr. Carrillo sliced open the green plastic piggy bank he’d bought at Wal-Mart and counted $3,100 in change and bills. “There was enough to buy a plane ticket home and ship my truck to Guatemala,” recalls Mr. Carrillo, 37 years old. Now back in San Juan Alotenango, a town of dirt streets and sporadic running water, he hauls fruit, firewood and recyclable metal for a few dollars a trip.
With his journey to the U.S. and back, Mr. Carrillo is helping to write the latest chapter in the American immigrant story. After years of growth, illegal immigration to the U.S. from Mexico and Central America has slowed sharply. At the same time, say demographers and immigrant advocates, more Latin American immigrants like Mr. Carrillo are apparently returning home. The impact of this shifting migration pattern is felt in the U.S. and beyond, in towns like San Juan Alotenango that depend to some degree on cash sent home by those working in the U.S.
It is difficult to track short-term changes in the population of the estimated 12 million immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. But a new study by the Pew Hispanic Center, an independent think tank in Washington, D.C., estimates that annual undocumented arrivals from Mexico are down about 25 percent this year from 2005, to about 350,000. Undocumented arrivals from Central America have been halved since then, to about 120,000, according to the study, which is due to be released Thursday.
In part, the slowdown is a product of a Bush administration crackdown on illegal immigration, with factory raids that led to deportations and even criminal charges for thousands of undocumented workers. Meanwhile, the weakened economy has dealt a blow to these workers, many of them employed in the slumping construction sector.
The Census Bureau reported last month that the income of U.S. households headed by non-citizen foreigners dropped 7.3 percent in 2007 from the previous year, after rising 4.1 percent in 2006. Pew Hispanic says that among households headed by Central Americans, the drop in income has been in the double digits.
As a result, flows of money to Latin America from U.S.-based workers have slowed for the first time since the Inter-American Development Bank began tracking remittances in 2000. The rate of growth in remittances to Mr. Carrillo’s home country of Guatemala has slowed in each of the past four quarters. The bank estimates that in the last quarter of this year, remittances will fall for the first time.
Some 1.35 million Guatemalan citizens — 10 percent of the country’s population — live in the U.S., according to the Central American Institute of Social and Development Studies, an independent think tank in Guatemala. Some 3.5 million people back in Guatemala depend on these remittances to get by, the group says. Remittances are the top foreign-exchange earner for Guatemala, at $4.12 billion in 2007, ahead of coffee, sugar and other exports.
Such income fuels everything from construction and appliance sales to spending on services. When the remittances shrink, “the first things to go out the window are education and health care — things that determine a family’s long-term earnings potential,” says Robert Meins, a remittances specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank.
An immigrant exodus wouldn’t be unprecedented. As many as one-third of the nearly 30 million foreigners who arrived in the U.S. between the Civil War and World War I returned to their native countries. Arrivals from Latin America also ebb and flow, with the influx to the U.S. last slackening during the 2001-02 recession.
San Juan Alotenango, an agricultural town of about 20,000 people, sits in a green valley bounded by two volcanoes. The average daily wage for farmhands is less than $10. When a relative moves to the U.S., families get a big boost in their standard of living. When the U.S. economy begins heaving, these families feel the effects.
Maria Felipa Cojolon said that her husband, Isidro, regularly sent home $2,000 a month two years ago from Atlanta. In recent months, the restaurant worker hasn’t managed to send even $800 a month. Standing in the skeleton of a two-story house whose construction has slowed, Mrs. Cojolon said: “Until he completes the house, my husband hopes to hang on” in the U.S.
A few blocks away, down a rutted road, Ambrosio Carrillo stood outside his family’s one-room shack on a recent afternoon, recounting how he tried to make it in America.
He went, he said, to secure a better education for his kids and perhaps purchase land for them. With only three years of schooling and a job at a coffee-processing plant, he didn’t see success in San Juan Alotenango. “We didn’t go hungry,” he says, but added: “I thought I could give my children a better future by going to America.”
Two cousins were thriving in the U.S. One of them was prepared to help finance Mr. Carrillo’s journey. The fee charged by a coyote, or smuggler, was 42,000 Guatemalan quetzales, or about $5,700 — including the overland journey from Guatemala to Mexico to Los Angeles and then a flight to Baltimore. Mr. Carrillo’s family made a downpayment of about one-third of the tab before he set out. With interest, the total cost of the trip would double to nearly $10,000.
On April 26, 2004, Mr. Carrillo joined about 30 Guatemalans, as well as several El Salvadorans and Hondurans, for a harrowing journey to the U.S. In the Arizona desert one night, he says, a U.S. Border Patrol ambushed and apprehended some in his traveling party. Mr. Carrillo says that during the raid he lost much of the canned food he was carrying, and says he wandered three more days without food. Cactus needles punctured his legs and arms. His swollen feet turned raw. Still, he recalls, he helped carry injured companions and children.
After six days in the desert, Mr. Carrillo and a dozen migrants crammed into a van that picked them up on the side of a country road. Once in Los Angeles, the smugglers contacted Mr. Carrillo’s family in Guatemala to arrange the deposit of another payment to the coyote’s Guatemalan bank account. Two days later, Mr. Carrillo was en route to Baltimore. There, his cousin took him to a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Hyattsville, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C., that he would share with 11 other immigrants.
In 2004, construction was booming in Washington and its suburbs. Mr. Carrillo paid a document vendor $80 for a Social Security card with his name and a fabricated number. He was soon at work. “The boss gave me a uniform and a hard hat,” he says, brandishing a gray and white T-shirt with the company’s name, Pat’s Renovation LLC. A company representative couldn’t be located; a telephone number associated with Pat’s Renovation is no longer in service.
“I started as a ‘laborer,’ making $9 an hour,” says Mr. Carrillo, using one of the English words that leavened an interview otherwise conducted in Spanish. After tax and Social Security deductions, Mr. Carrillo says his take-home pay was about $400 a week, more than a dozen times what he earned back home. He bought a 1998 Nissan Sentra for $425.
Mr. Carrillo gradually learned English and skills such as tiling and carpentry. His hourly wage climbed to $11, he says, then $12. For the first two years, he paid off his debt to the coyote and sent his family about $200 every two weeks. Later, he says, he was able to send $300 or $400.
About $40 each month went for secondary school for his two older kids. Guatemalans who want to continue their childrens’ schooling beyond the primary level typically have to pay for private education.
Some weekends, Mr. Carrillo earned extra cash by doing landscaping on an 11-acre estate in affluent Howard County, Md. Reached by phone, the homeowner, Nura, asked that her last name be omitted. “We hired seven Americans who weren’t up to the job,” she said. “Then we found Ambrosio. He showed up on time and took his work seriously,” pulling weeds, cutting fallen branches and spreading mulch. At lunchtime, she said, he was eager to practice his English.
On Sundays, Mr. Carrillo sometimes played soccer with other undocumented immigrants at a field near his apartment complex. In 2006 — by now making $12 an hour and feeling confident about his job prospects — he sold his Nissan and paid $2,000 for a green 2000 Ford Ranger.
Back home, Mr. Carrillo’s family still lived in the shack with sugar-cane stick walls, tin roof, earth floor and no refrigerator. His wife, Josefina, washed clothes at a public tank a few blocks away.
But his family could afford more now. Mrs. Carrillo bought herself four gold-tooth implants. For their 17-year-old daughter, Miriam, she purchased two small gold hoops. Sons Byron, 15, and Jose Fernando, 11, received new shirts and dress shoes. “We could afford red meat,” Mrs. Carrillo said on a recent Saturday. “Not just frijolitos (little beans).”
Mr. Carrillo phoned home several times a week. Sometimes he called in the wee hours of the night and sounded like he had been drinking, Mrs. Carrillo says. Mr. Carrillo doesn’t dispute this. “It was the sadness of being away from the family,” his wife said.
By 2007, fortunes were beginning to turn for Mr. Carrillo and other illegal immigrants.
That spring, the U.S. mortgage crisis began taking shape and the construction sector started contracting. In July, Congress defeated a bill, supported by President George W. Bush, that would have put millions of illegal immigrants on the path to legalization. The next month, the Department of Homeland Security stepped up enforcement with raids that Mr. Carrillo and his roommates tracked on Univision, the Spanish-language television network.
At a construction site one Monday morning that summer, Mr. Carrillo and a dozen other workers were informed that Pat’s Renovation had received notices — known as “no match” letters — indicating that the laborers’ Social Security numbers weren’t valid. At first, the contractor switched to cash payments. But about three weeks later, Mr. Carrillo says, the boss told them he would have to discontinue this practice.
Mr. Carrillo began applying for jobs at other companies. As he recalls it, they said: “No good Social Security number, no job. Sorry.”
He began hustling for day jobs, standing outside a 7-Eleven store with dozens of other immigrants. He worked part-time two or three days a week. “There was too much competition,” he recalls.
Back home the effects were immediate, Mrs. Carrillo says. Meat was off the menu. Mrs. Carrillo says she had to borrow to make monthly school payments. There were no new clothes for the children. In a tense phone exchange, Mrs. Carrillo accused her husband of sacrificing his family in exchange for a new woman in the U.S.
“It wasn’t that I had another woman,” Mr. Carrillo says. “I simply didn’t have work.”
Through the fall and winter of 2007, Mr. Carrillo said, he had no money at all to send to his family. On the worst days, the migrant says, he cried in despair. He said that finally, after two months without a day of work, he called his wife and told her: “Better to eat poverty in my family’s company than alone.” She told him to come home.
That’s when he ripped into the piggy bank. Some of the $3,100 went toward a passport he obtained at the Guatemalan embassy. He bought a $330 one-way ticket home from Washington on Taca airlines. He spent $1,100 to ship his truck home. Another several hundred dollars paid pending rent and bills in the U.S., he says.
On Jan. 26, he landed in Guatemala with $600 in cash and a bag loaded with a new television, a DVD/VCR and a music system. A month later, his Ford Ranger arrived. With the truck and a cellphone, he began an independent transport business.
He has hauled carrots, building materials, scrap metal. On a recent day, he got about $10 — minus his costs for fuel — to haul avocados to the nearby tourist center of Antigua. A few weeks ago, he says, his truck was impounded by a traffic cop after he got in an accident. He says he had to pay a bribe to get it back.
“With the truck, at least we can eat,” he says.
Work has been sparse. Mrs. Carrillo says the family is about $200 in arrears on school payments for their daughter and older son. Their 17-year-old, Miriam, says she still hopes to graduate from high school this year and enter a vocational college to become a dental technician. Jose Fernando, the Carrillos’s youngest son, doesn’t have his school uniform, which costs about $8.
To pass the days without work, Mr. Carrillo watches TV or plays soccer. Some nights he drinks beer with his buddies.
The U.S. remains on his mind. Not long ago, he placed a long-distance call to Nura, the homeowner in Howard County, Md., to make sure she was pleased with the person he had recommended to replace him. On a recent Sunday, surrounded by his three children, he said: “If I could get the right papers — a visa — I would return.”