RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- With signs of economic recovery growing, some immigrants who left inland California for their homelands after losing their jobs are returning to the United States, Mexican officials and leaders of local immigrant-assistance groups said.
U.S. unemployment is still high, but hope is rising, said Jose Mendoza Morfin, municipal president of Cotija, Mexico, the hometown of an estimated 2,000 California immigrants.
"The United States is beginning to stabilize," Mendoza said in Spanish during a recent visit to Perris, Calif. "They know that in a short time they're going to have a job."
But migrants are cautious, Mendoza said. Some are returning to different regions than those they left, choosing to bypass high-unemployment states like California for places with more jobs, he said. Others are returning alone, leaving families behind in Mexico until the economy improves further, he said.
There is no way to measure how many immigrants left the United States because of the recession. But experts agree that the economic downturn -- coupled with more aggressive immigration-law enforcement -- fundamentally shifted immigration patterns, especially in hard-hit regions like inland California.
The massive, years-long increase in the area's foreign-born population came to a halt in 2008, when the number of immigrants began falling, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. It's unknown how many are in the United States illegally, because the Census Bureau doesn't ask immigration status.
Nationally, the number of people who illegally crossed the border plummeted from an estimated 850,000 each year in the first half of the decade to about 300,000 annually from March 2007 to March 2009, according to a September report by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center.
The number of illegal -- undocumented -- immigrants living in the United States declined from its 2007 peak of 11.8 million to 10.8 million in 2009, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimates.
But immigrant-rights advocates said it has been months since they heard of families returning to Mexico for economic reasons.
Some Riverside County schools saw an unusually high number of Latin American and Asian immigrant parents pull their children out of school during the 2007-08 and 2008-09 academic years to return to their homelands, said county schools Superintendent Kenn Young. Last academic year, relatively few parents did so.
Juan Antonio Lopez, general manager of Crucero, a Greyhound Lines subsidiary that has stops in Riverside and San Bernardino, said his employees are telling him that far fewer people are returning permanently to Mexico than a year or two ago.
Some immigrants may be moving to other states. Undocumented immigrants are more likely to relocate -- whether abroad or within the United States -- to look for work because they are ineligible for unemployment and other government benefits and because they are less likely to have strong roots in an area, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside and an expert on immigration.
Even before the recession, illegal immigrants were increasingly settling outside California and other traditionally immigrant-heavy states, opting for states that previously had few immigrants.
"The uneven nature of the recovery may maintain this trend," Ramakrishnan said, referring to stubbornly high unemployment in states like California and more optimistic economic forecasts in other states. "It might even increase the trend."
Ramakrishnan said one reason more undocumented immigrants did not return to their homelands during the recession is because increased border security would have made it more expensive and difficult for them to cross back into the United States later.
It's also why some migrants who returned to Mexico aren't coming back to the United States.
E-mail reporter David Olson at dolson(at)PE.com.