MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican workers in the United States have lost jobs and faced a crackdown on illegal immigration but are not heading home in droves despite the worst recession in decades, officials and researchers say.
There is no record of those leaving the United States by land but anecdotal reports suggest some families have packed their belongings into trucks and crossed back into Mexico as construction, food and as farm jobs have evaporated.
A record 12.7 million Mexican immigrants lived and worked in the United States in 2008, more than half of them illegally, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center.
The vast majority have chosen to stay and weather the crisis. Rights groups say Washington needs to pass an overhaul of immigration policies because Mexicans are not going home.
“There is no evidence of a massive return,” said Adriana Valdes at the Mexican consulate in Denver. “People may move because of the crisis, but they are not moving to Mexico where the situation is no better.”
Mexico has also suffered its worst recession since the 1930s and illegal Mexican workers living and working in the shadows say they can still earn more in the United States.
“If things are bad here, they’re worse in our country,” said Christian Dominguez, 21, who has worked in Phoenix since crossing illegally to Arizona 15 months ago from Mexico.
Dominguez earns just $80 in a bad week, shares an apartment with seven other migrants and relies on food donations from local church groups to get by. But he says it is still better than in his home state of Chiapas in southern Mexico.
“There I didn’t even have money for books or anything else,” he said outside a Wal-Mart in Phoenix looking for work.
Some proponents for tougher U.S. immigration policies point to anecdotal stories of Mexicans leaving and a recent census report to argue that illegal immigrants in the United States are going home, lessening the need for immigration reform.
Critics of undocumented workers say they depress wages, drain resources and take jobs away from Americans. Latino advocacy groups say they do the jobs Americans don’t want.
The foreign born population in the United States dipped by around 100,000 people to 37.9 million last year, the first decline in more than a generation, the U.S. Census Bureau said.
According to a study by Pew Hispanic Center, the number of people heading back into Mexico every year has been steady since 2006 at around 450,000. “There is a strong seasonal pattern to the migration data but no matter how you look at it, there is no upward trend in out-migration,” said Jeffrey Passel, a demographer at Pew.
U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to seek support among Democratic and Republican lawmakers to overhaul the flawed U.S. immigration system. He is currently battling to push through healthcare reforms, though activists are hopeful he will tackle immigration next year.
Former President George W. Bush tried to push immigration reform through Congress in 2007 but the bill was killed by Republicans and the Bush administration took a get-tough approach focusing on workplace enforcement raids.
Obama supports offering illegal immigrants in good standing the chance to pay a fine and become citizens, as well as reducing immigration raids but still hardening security.
The U.S. government hired thousands more Border Patrol agents in 2007 to help deport immigrants who entered illegally or outstayed their visas, carry out workplace raids, and push police to enforce immigration laws.
Immigration experts say ramped up surveillance along the porous Mexican border has actually increased the illegal immigrant population in the United States because it is so tough to beat security that once in, people decide to stay.
For decades, immigrants crossed the border into the United States for seasonal work and returned home to Mexico when contracts ended, or at Easter and Christmas.
Now many prefer to move around the United States to look for work, moving away from border states like Arizona and Texas where immigration controls are the toughest.
“I’m thinking of going to Florida,” said Hector Gallardo, 50, from Cuernavaca, near Mexico City, who has been living illegally in Arizona for 12 years working as a builder. “I don’t think of going back to Mexico. But a lot of people are going to other states because of the crisis.”
Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix; Editing by Robin Emmott and Kieran Murray