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As U.S. economy sours, immigrants head for home

Francisco "Frank" Santos, a Brazilian immigrant living in Trenton, prospered as a busy laborer pouring concrete foundations back when home builders ruled.

"I can't continue here," Francisco "Frank" Santos, at his Trenton apartment, said before returning to Brazil. (Peter Tobia / Staff Photographer)
"I can't continue here," Francisco "Frank" Santos, at his Trenton apartment, said before returning to Brazil. (Peter Tobia / Staff Photographer)Read more

Francisco "Frank" Santos, a Brazilian immigrant living in Trenton, prospered as a busy laborer pouring concrete foundations back when home builders ruled.

"I had a lot of dreams, oh, my God. To buy some house, a car, a motorcycle," said Santos, 32, who came to the United States in 2000.

When the construction market tanked six years later, he found himself sidelined. With part-time jobs, he made $440 a week, a third of his former pay, and struggled to meet his $800-a-month rent.

Rather than tough it out, Santos decided to go back to Brazil. With his construction earnings, he had invested in a small car wash and an Internet cafe, which he plans to run there.

"I can't continue here," he said just before his recent departure. "I want to eat."

The unrelenting blows to the U.S. economy have landed even harder on other immigrants in the region, whose low wages, lack of nearby family, and ineligibility for welfare make riding out tight times difficult - so difficult that increasing numbers of them are returning home.

The Brazilian consulate in New York, which keeps tabs on the Mid-Atlantic region, recently dispatched diplomats to the Philadelphia area to help expedite the unusual volume of passport renewals for Brazilians wanting to go back.

And they are not the only group in which experts are noticing reverse migration hastened by the economy.

Mexican immigrants tend to flow back and forth across the border as U.S. labor demands wax and wane, said Enrique Ruiz Sanchez, Mexican consul in Philadelphia.

However, Mexico City reportedly is expecting the imminent return of 30,000 more immigrants than usual because of America's slumping economy. The U.S. Border Patrol says apprehensions for illegal crossings are down nearly 40 percent from 2005.

"So many immigrants in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania are connected to the middle-class service sectors," said Janice Fine, an assistant professor of labor studies at Rutgers University and an expert on immigrant employment. "When executives and the middle class are affected by the downturn, they are less likely to use child care, landscapers, or go out to eat."

In Montgomery County, the Latino population is estimated at 24,000. Most Latinos live in the Norristown area, where Adamino Ortiz is watching jobs disappear and immigrants with them.

"They say the door is closing every day more and more," said Ortiz, interim executive director of ACLAMO - Accion Comunal Latinoamericana de Montgomery County, an agency providing employment assistance to Hispanic immigrants in the county seat.

His service-sector clients, he said, have been losing about 25 jobs a week.

In the past, "every month there were new families coming, and they were able to find jobs - sometimes two jobs - to survive," he said. "Right now they can't even get one job.

Some are facing homelessness, Ortiz said, but "the ones that have the means, a great number of them are returning to their countries of origin: Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala."

While those economies are hard-pressed, too, he said, "at least they are with their own families there."

Guatemalan-born Manuel Portillo, executive director of the Open Borders Project, a North Philadelphia job- and language-training program, attended a community meeting where he met two Mexicans and a Cuban who lost jobs at Center City restaurants.

"Remember," he said, "these are survival jobs."

An analysis released last month by the Pew Hispanic Center found that the "economic slowdown has taken a far greater toll on noncitizen immigrants" than on the U.S. population as a whole. Median annual income for immigrant households in 2007 fell 7.3 percent from 2006 while it grew 1.3 percent for all other households.

Not only do immigrants lack rainy-day reserves, but also most of their social networks probably are inadequate for the current crisis, said Peter Cappelli, an expert on the economic aspects of immigration at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

"You need to take into consideration the poverty that comes from your social capital," he said, "not just your physical capital."

Santos, the Brazilian laborer who went home, settled first in Philadelphia, married an American woman in 2003, and got a green card authorizing him to work, he said. For six years, the couple lived in the Castor section of Northeast Philadelphia, home to many Brazilians.

When the building bubble burst, he tried working as a paver, a landscaper and a bartender, but couldn't earn enough. The pressure on his marriage, he said, contributed to his divorce last year.

Of nearly one million Brazilians in the United States, about 250,000 live in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Delaware, according to Brazilian deputy consul Erika Watanabe in New York. Although the consulate does not keep track of how many have returned to Brazil, she said she had seen "a significant increase" in people asking for "certificates of residence," which prove they lived abroad. The certificates are required when taking personal effects back to Brazil.

Celso DeSouza, 59, head of the nonprofit Brazilian Organization for Social Services in Greater Philadelphia, said Brazilians were indeed leaving the region - even though their nation of 190 million people is beginning to feel the effects of the global financial crisis.

In the last year, DeSouza said, he helped 20 to 30 families plan their return to Brazil.

"They tell me, 'I have been here for five years. I can't make ends meet these days. I don't speak English. I'm not legal. I don't make enough to send money back to Brazil. Why should I stay here in the U.S. with all this pressure on?' " he said.

Because Victoria Truong, owner of Ong's restaurant in Philadelphia's Chinatown, is feeling the effects of fewer people eating out, so is her staff. An ethnic Chinese who came to America from Vietnam, Truong, a U.S. citizen, is well-established here. But several of her employees are not, including one she recently let go because business is off.

"Now I mop the floor myself," she said in a room of mostly empty tables during a lunch hour.

For recent immigrants, the problems brought on by job loss are compounded by the unavailability of public benefits, said Jonathan Blazer, a lawyer for the National Immigration Law Center, an advocacy group.

"In order to get food stamps as an adult in Pennsylvania," Blazer said, "you have to have had your green card, or some other 'qualified alien' status, for at least five years."

Ronaldo Empke, branch president of Harvest Institute, a national English-as-a-second-language school with chapters in Philadelphia and Delran, said his clientele had fallen off because so many Brazilians had gone home.

"Most of the men used to work in construction," he said. "Now they are not able to maintain themselves."

Edvaldo Ferneda cannot - at least not in his preferred trade. He came to the United States from Brazil in 1998; settled in Riverside, Burlington County; and worked as a carpenter building houses. At first, his weekly pay was $380. In the best of times, it shot to $2,000. By 2006, he was lucky to make $600 a week.

The burly Ferneda, 46, is a laborer at heart, so he swallowed hard before joining Cecilia Cleaning Services, which his wife, Terezinha, started and named for her mother.

Working as hard as ever, he and his wife earn just about what he used to make on his own. It means pushing a vacuum at night over beauty salon and doctor's office carpets, a far cry from construction. But, he said, he had "bills to pay, meals to eat, kids to support," and parents and a stepdaughter in Brazil counting on his help.

Born in Brazil, Mariza Demelo has lived in Philadelphia for 33 years. Married with children born here, Demelo has no intention of returning to Brazil to live.

But her youngest son, 23-year-old Andrew, takes a different view.

A student at Community College of Philadelphia, he works part time for an ambulance service. His mother tells him the economy will get better, but he's not so sure. That's why he wants to add Brazilian citizenship, in case he wants to seek work there.

"He doesn't know which way [the U.S. economy] is going," Demelo said. "He said, 'I think I should have other options.' I told him, 'It will rebound.' He tells me, 'No. You're wrong. It's never been this bad.' "