Yovany Diaz almost lost his life when he illegally entered this country 17 years ago at age 8, nearly drowning in the Rio Grande.
After surviving that harrowing experience, Diaz reunited with his mother and settled in Roswell, eventually graduating from Chattahoochee High School and finding work at a local discount warehouse store.
But he missed the rest of his family back in his native Mexico. And his diabetic mother needed eye surgery. So they went back home last year. Working in picturesque San Luis Potosi and dreaming of going to college on a scholarship in his homeland, Diaz, 25, has no plans to return to the United States any time soon.
His move back home is part of a significant population shift with important implications for some of Georgia’s largest industries, as well as the wall President Donald Trump wants to build on the southwest border.
Net migration from Mexico to the U.S. has dropped below zero, according to the Pew Research Center. And now Mexicans may no longer represent the majority of the estimated 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants living here. Meanwhile, the numbers of Central Americans and Asians living in the U.S. without authorization has increased.
“Deciding to come back to Mexico was not an easy choice. But I don’t regret coming back,” said Diaz, who received a temporary reprieve from deportation from the Obama administration for young immigrants who were brought to the U.S.
“I wanted to see my grandparents. They are the ones who first raised me. My mom had to work in the U.S. for a long time, and she left me in the care of my grandparents. And so they are the first ones I called Mom and Dad.”
‘First choice is to stay home’
Between 2009 and 2014, an estimated 870,000 Mexican nationals left Mexico for the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center. But during that same period, a million Mexicans and their families — including U.S.-born children — left the U.S. for Mexico. And between 2013 and 2015, Georgia’s Mexican-born population fell by 6 percent to 259,260.
Last year, Mexicans made up about half of the total of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S., down from their peak of 57 percent in 2007. Their numbers have been declining over the last decade.
Numerous factors are involved, including increased border security, deportations, America’s Great Recession and Mexico’s steeply declining birth rates, said Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Research Center.
“The age structure and composition in Mexico has undergone a dramatic change over the last 40 years,” he said. “There has been a decline in the number of people in the primary migrating ages — roughly ages 16 to 30 — which is when most of the first-time migrants come.”
But there is also a pull factor: Mexico’s steady economy, said F. Javier Diaz, Mexico’s consul general in Atlanta. Mexico, Diaz added, is helping its returning citizens find jobs, learn Spanish and enroll their children in schools.
“Sometimes I find people who say that, ‘Everybody wants to come to the United States,’” he said. “Well, yes, but not really. Everybody prefers to stay in their own country. Your first choice is to stay home. If you have a job and the possibility to stay home with your family — with your culture — you will probably do that.”
The rule of law
The population shifts come with consequences for Georgia employers that rely heavily on legal immigrant workers, including Mexicans, many of whom have relatives living in the United States without authorization. The state’s $20 billion restaurant industry, for example, is now struggling to fill jobs for dishwashers, line cooks and servers, said Karen Bremer, CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association.
“It is something we are certainly watching,” Bremer said of the Peach State’s population changes. “There is a connection.”
But people should not lose sight of the fact that illegal immigration also drives up costs for the nation’s school systems, jails and emergency rooms, said J.D. Van Brink, chairman of the Georgia Tea Party Inc.
“To me,” Van Brink said, “it’s about following the Constitution and the rule of law.”
‘A great, great wall’
When Trump announced his presidential campaign two years ago, he took aim at Mexican immigrants illegally entering the U.S. He said Mexico was “sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
The real estate mogul and reality television celebrity spoke about building a “great, great wall” on the southern border at Mexico’s expense.
Estimates for extending the existing barriers along the southwest border — there are already about 700 miles of various walls, fences and other barriers there — range as high as $21.6 billion. The Trump administration recently solicited prototypes for an extension. But Mexico says it won’t pay for it and Congress this week refused to budget funding for new walls.
Critics of the project point out that apprehensions of Mexicans on the southwest border have fallen sharply in recent years. Meanwhile, many of the Central Americans who are illegally crossing the border are immediately surrendering to Border Patrol agents because they are fleeing deprivation and violence in their homeland and are seeking protection, said R. Gil Kerlikowske, who served as commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Obama administration.
“The discussion of a gigantic wall along the entire border — given the costs and the maintenance costs and on and on — doesn’t seem particularly applicable, when in fact the number of people coming over these last several months is down considerably,” Kerlikowske said.
A U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman acknowledged that some of those living without permission in the United States came here legally but then overstayed their visas.
“The purpose of the wall,” said the agency’s spokeswoman, Gillian Christensen, “is to help gain operational control of the border. It’s designed to assist in interdicting the movement of illicit goods and people.”
Fitting back in
Yovany Diaz is now working on his grandparents’ property, taking care of their cows, growing corn and chopping firewood.
Living in the countryside northwest of Mexico City, Diaz marvels at the mountains rising in the distance, as well as the crystal-clear stars in the night sky. He savors his maternal grandmother’s handmade corn tortillas, though he misses American hamburgers.
At the same time, he is dreaming about attending the University of Monterrey. He pointed out that Georgia prohibits immigrants like him from attending some of its top universities, including the University of Georgia. Before he decides whether to go back to school, Diaz wants to spend more time reacclimating in Mexico and relearning his native language. The transition, he said, hasn’t been easy. Diaz would like to return to the U.S. one day. But Trump, he said, has made America difficult for immigrants like him.
“I’d like to come back to the United States, but … I don’t see that in my near future now,” he said, before adding this about Trump’s stringent immigration policies: “It’s just really heavy on the soul. So I would like to stay here for a while.”
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