(MEXICO CITY) – The cobblestone streets of El Cargadero are eerily empty. The houses in this small northern Mexican town are bolted shut, the windows boarded, their residents living and working across the border in the U.S.
“I would say that two-thirds of the people from here they reside in Southern California,” resident Joaquin Fernandez, who lives in California most of the year, told ABC News.
But that is changing. After desperately and dangerously crossing the border for work in the U.S., many Mexican immigrants now find the land from which they fled holds more opportunity and economic promise.
“When the economy [in the U.S.] started going down, it was hard, especially my work,” Erika Felix said. “It was just so much stress and my parents tell me, ‘Why don’t you come back and continue education here,’ so I did.”
Self-deportation is a trend not often mentioned in the debate over immigration reform. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, since 2005 migration between the U.S. and Mexico has been net zero. Roughly 1.4 million Mexicans came into and out of the United States during that time.
After living undocumented in the U.S. for nine years, Felix decided to move home to El Cargadero. “I heard some people say we’re even better here in Mexico and I think so too,” she explained.
“You have more rights, more freedom, you know you’re not hiding, you can work and everything,” she said.
Back in the U.S., 19-year-old Antonio Alarcon is an immigration success story. The Mexican immigrant living in New York is an honor student, a high school graduate, and the proud holder of a U.S. Social Security number. He embodies everything his parents hoped to achieve when they crossed the border and entered the U.S. illegally 13 years ago.
But that was then. Sitting a world away, in their remote hometown in central Mexico, Antonio’s mother Roberta Alarcon weeps when she boasts about her son.
“I’m so proud of him because my kid is very studious,” she told ABC News through tears as she showed off his high school diploma. “He is very hard-working.”
Roberta and her husband Salvador Alarcon are part of this do-it-yourself deportation, Mexicans forced home, not by beefed-up U.S. immigration policies, but because of the flailing U.S. economy.
The Alarcons have not seen their son since they returned home to their small town of Misantla last year, after the hardships in the U.S. became too much too bear.
“There was a high unemployment rate there and then the employers started exploiting us,” Salvador explained of their decision to leave the U.S.
“We didn’t earn much. We just had enough to pay the rent and food,” Roberta added.
The decision to leave Antonio was extremely difficult, his parents said, but ultimately they knew he would have a better life if he stayed.
After completing high school in New York, Antonio is now documented, going to college, and working for an immigration advocacy organization.
“Finally I got those nine digits that changed my life,” he said of his new Social Security number. “Hopefully we will pass immigration reform and it won’t only be me, it will be the 11 million undocumented people being here.”
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