Immigration: The New Dream Isn't American

Until recently, Salvador Luna, A 41-year-old toy vendor in Mexico City, had planned to join his two sisters in New York City, where they work illegally as maids. "But they're telling me about people getting rounded up and deported, and how life in general is getting harder there," he says. One of Luna's co-workers was just deported back to Mexico, shortly after handing $1,000 to a coyote to cross the border. And there are no guarantees Luna could earn significantly more than the $20 he makes daily in Mexico. "I want a better life for my family," says the father of two, "but I'm not sure I want to risk the trouble of getting to the United States just to get tossed back."

Every year, millions of people around the globe make the essentially economic choice of whether to come to the United States—legally or illegally. But in the past 18 months the calculus behind that decision has changed. Many immigrants are leaving the United States—willingly and unwillingly—and countless others are deciding not to come. The reasons: tougher enforcement and border control, a slowing U.S. economy and impressive growth in developing countries, where many immigrants hail from.

Like Luna, potential immigrants have been deterred by more stringent border controls. Nationwide, deportations of illegal immigrants rose from 178,657 in fiscal 2005 to 282,548 in fiscal 2007—up 58 percent. At the same time, apprehensions are down sharply along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border—in fiscal 2007, 859,000 illegal immigrants were stopped, compared with 1.07 million in 2006—an indication that fewer people are attempting to cross. Border Patrol spokesman Ramon Rivera chalks it up partly to an effort started in 2005 to prosecute immigrants for illegal entry—"word got around real quick"—and partly to Operation Jump Start, under which thousands of National Guard members were sent to the border region in support roles, freeing more of the expanded roster of 16,000 Border Patrol agents to get into the field.

The government has also been going after employers who hire undocumented workers. "We really wanted to target prosecutions of egregious employers as well as illegal aliens who are stealing the identities of Americans," says Julie Myers, assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security. The combined number of arrests of employers and illegal workers at work sites—like this month's high-profile raid on a kosher meat-processing plant in Iowa that netted 300 suspects—rose from 1,292 in 2005 to 4,940 in 2007.

The slowing economy means less work for immigrants, and for the people who make a living providing services to them. Julio Duarte, a Honduran who was among a group of 50 day laborers outside a Home Depot in Hempstead, N.Y., recently, has lived in America for three years, and he's found it tough going lately. "For four months I haven't been able to work. When you have no work, you have no anything," he says. In the Southwest, commercial districts of cities that were once thronged with construction workers now resemble ghost towns. Alma Espinoza, 53, who cuts hair at the El y Ella Salon in central Phoenix, has seen her daily business drop from $500 to $100 since last year. "If this goes on," Espinoza says, "the salon won't stay open."

Most immigrants seek work that enables them to support families back home. But in the first quarter of 2008, Mexico's central bank said remittances from the United States fell 2.9 percent. And a survey released by the Inter-American Development Bank in April found that 3 million fewer Latino immigrants are sending money home from the United States this year compared with two years ago. About one third of those surveyed—and 49 percent of those who have been in the United States fewer than five years—said they were thinking about going home.

The weak dollar, which reduces the amount of money people can send home, is a contributing factor. Brazil's chronically weak currency, the real, has gained strength against the dollar. Travel agents in areas with large Brazilian communities report that thousands of Brazilian clients have purchased one-way plane tickets in recent months. Workers from South American countries like Ecuador and Bolivia are increasingly seeking their fortune in Spain, where language, lenient immigration policies and the strong euro make the environment more congenial.

Strength in emerging economies is also exerting a gravitational pull on potential migrants. Today, about 84 percent of the graduates of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology decide to pursue careers at home, compared with only 65 percent seven years ago. Rising living standards and the spread of Western-style capitalism are responsible. "The lure of immigration to the U.S. is still pretty strong, though its intensity is declining," says Shubha Singh, a writer on the Indian diaspora. The American Dream still holds a powerful appeal for people around the world. But the choice of whether to immigrate to the United States requires a careful weighing of the costs and benefits, the risks and rewards. Given the climate—at home and abroad—people like Salvador Luna in Mexico City are thinking more than twice about embarking on the journey.