HARRISONBURG, Va. — For 10 years, Ezequiel Gonzalez and his wife, Lupe, feared that their lives as illegal immigrants in America would be discovered.
One spring evening two years ago, it finally happened. Immigration agents detected Ezequiel working illegally at a local glass company here and ordered him deported to Mexico. Left on her own, Lupe packed up their few belongings and prepared their four children, ages 8 through 15, for the journey to a country they barely knew.
Back in their colonial town in central Mexico, the couple now struggles to support themselves.
"We would like to go back to the United States," said Lupe, 36, by telephone. "But I'm not sure it will ever be possible."
In many places across the country, a demographic shift is underway. Illegal immigrants not only are returning to their homelands in response to more intense government scrutiny, but they're also staying there once they've returned. As word spreads that jobs are harder to come by in the U.S. because of the recession, others are deciding not to come in the first place, slowing an unprecedented flood of immigrants that's lasted more than a decade.
U.S. employers, meanwhile, are hiring fewer undocumented immigrants because they have a bigger pool of unemployed legal workers to choose from and because they fear tighter immigration laws, immigrants and experts say.
"When you start taking away the work force by cracking down on illegal immigration, it scares the bejesus out of employers," said Mark Reed, a former immigration official who once oversaw such measures. "Their mentality changes."
The estimated 12 million immigrants believed to be living in the country illegally have by no means disappeared from the American work force. In the past decade, the population skyrocketed 40 percent. They now fill about 5 percent of American jobs.
However, the dramatic year-after-year increases in the population have stalled. The Pew Hispanic Center, which regularly estimates the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., concluded in its most recent report last April that the growth in their population began slowing in 2006, a full year before the recession hit.
Roughly 300,000 fewer immigrants came to the country each year between 2005 and 2008, an almost 40 percent drop annually, according to the center.
As the recession deepened in 2009 and into 2010, the numbers likely continued to decline, said Jeff Passel, a senior demographer with the center, which is preparing an update of their report.
Some immigrants say their decision to leave or stay away is much more subtle than fear of detection or the lack of jobs. They feel a broader disillusionment with a country that was once more welcoming — or at least grudgingly tolerant — during good times, but has abandoned them as the economy soured.
"We're sold this idea of the 'American Dream'," said Gustavo, a 46-year-old undocumented construction worker who says he's watched fellow illegal workers return home, discouraged by the lack of jobs. "But when we arrive, we realize it doesn't exist."
The shift comes at a time when the Obama administration is trying to demonstrate that it's tough on illegal immigration while reassuring the president's political base that he'll eventually pursue a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
Further polarizing the issue, state and local lawmakers, who once left immigration enforcement to the federal government, have stepped in. In 2009, states enacted 222 immigration laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In the latest anti-immigration effort, Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed a law April 23 that requires police to demand documentation of anyone they suspect might be an illegal immigrant — a measure that critics say encourages racial profiling. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, has criticized the law and ordered the Justice Department to review it.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a pro-immigration enforcement policy organization, said the immigration slowdown proves that the crackdowns work and should continue.
"Right now, it's a system where the worker pretends to have real immigration documents and the employer pretends to believe them," Krikorian said.
However, Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, an employer-lobbying group, said one trend contributing to illegal immigration hasn't changed. Americans are much more educated than they were 50 years ago and are much less willing to do unskilled physical work.
Economic prosperity, she asserts, is fueled by the flow of laborers who are willing to fill those jobs.
"When the economy booms again, and when people start to go out to eat, and travel, and build houses, we're going to need an immigrant work force," Jacoby said.
For now, illegal immigrants across the country say they are competing for far fewer jobs against many more applicants as a growing number of jobless citizens are accepting low-paying jobs they never dreamed of taking during boom times.
Lina Cotes, a naturalized U.S. citizen who arrived from the Dominican Republic 15 years ago, recently showed up to look for work at an office set up by an advocacy group in Maryland that help migrants find jobs.
"I'll take whatever I can get at this point," said Cotes, 49.
To get her last job as an administrative assistant, she had to work her way through school as a maid and as a nanny. Now, she's considering moving back to the Caribbean nation to help pay for her daughter's college education in the U.S. "With what I've learned here, I'm thinking I might have better options there," she said.
Gesturing at the dozens of immigrants who sit nearby, she then voices a sentiment that many other Americans are feeling during this downturn. "They'll probably be hired before me. They're cheaper."
However, the immigrants who choose to remain are more likely to be unemployed.
In 2005, 4.5 percent of undocumented men were unemployed, compared with almost 6 percent of U.S. born workers, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated. That trend has reversed, with 6.5 percent of undocumented workers unemployed in 2008, compared with 5.6 percent of U.S. born workers, a situation that's undoubtedly worsened with the downturn. More than half the undocumented work force worked in service or construction, two sectors hit hard by the recession.
In North Carolina, where building permits for new homes have fallen almost 40 percent in counties such as Mecklenburg, which contains Charlotte, the increase in the immigrant population has stopped — and may have started to reverse. The Pew Hispanic Center estimated that the number of illegal immigrants living in North Carolina dropped to about 350,000 in 2008 from 390,000 in 2006.
After watching the tremendous growth over the past 10 years, Maria Saavedra and her husband, Henry Jimenez, couldn't help but dream that their first Mexican/Honduran restaurant in South Charlotte would be the first of many to open around the city.
Carpenters and painters filled the booths of El Casa Grande when it opened in the fall of 2008, Saavedra said. The jukebox boomed with Mexican ballads.
Nearly two years later, Saavedra, 28, now says they're struggling to keep the restaurant open.
"We have no clients," Saavedra said. "We survive day-to-day, but it's very, very difficult."
It's not just the economy. Immigration enforcement has had a chilling effect on hiring.
Under federal law, employers are only required to ask for proof of immigration status, not verify that the IDs are real. However, they can still be fined or even prosecuted if the federal government can prove they "knowingly" hired undocumented workers.
For years, the federal government did little to go after the employers who did.
Then, at the end of the Bush administration, the Department of Homeland Security stepped up work site raids after President George W. Bush failed to get immigration overhaul legislation through Congress and angered his conservative base. Agents zeroed in on industries such as meatpacking that had come to depend on the undocumented work force.
While the Obama administration has scaled back those raids, it has stepped up scrutiny of companies' immigration paperwork. In 2009, Immigration and Customs Enforcement audited 1,444 companies, more than double the number the year before. So far this year, ICE has audited more than 1,180.
The number of employers fined for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants has risen dramatically as well. In 2006, no employer was fined. In 2008, ICE fined 18 employers, amounting to about $675,000 in fines. In the first five months of this fiscal year, ICE has fined 63 employers or issued almost $1.9 million in fines.
James Spero, a deputy assistant director for ICE, said agents are focusing on employers rather than the illegal workers.
"It's a pivot," he said. "The goal is to build a case against the employer. We feel that's the most effective use of our resources to reduce the magnet or pull of illegal employment."
Audits are more effective than the raids, said Reed, the former immigration official whose Arizona company now helps companies comply with immigration law.
With raids, the workers flee and the employers simply replace them with other illegal workers, he said. But with audits, the employer knows the government will check back to see if illegal workers are still employed and will fine them if that's the case.
"One agent can take on 100 employers," he said, whereas raids require dozens of agents.
Employers appear to have taken note of raids and audits, even in industries once notorious for attracting undocumented workers.
Maria, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant in Harrisonburg, a poultry producing center about 120 miles west of Washington, said she's noticed that even the most undesirable jobs are hard to come by.
During the past five years, she documented her citizenship with a Puerto Rican's social security card that she paid $1,500 to "borrow" for work. When she recently applied at a meat packing plant, however, the supervisor asked her many more questions than usual.
"They suspected," said Maria, who asked not to be identified further for fear of detection. "They wanted to know the color of my school flag in Puerto Rico. I had no idea."
Maria chose not to pursue the job.
Jose, an immigrant from El Salvador and a permanent resident, said his work line at a Cargill meat packing plant near Harrisonburg used to be 95 percent Hispanic and half of them were illegal. Then, the federal government raided his plant as part of an investigation of the hiring of illegal immigrants. Now, he said, about half are Hispanic, and none of them are undocumented.
The illegal workers have been replaced by refugees who have come in legally from countries such as Iraq and Russia. He's spotted a growing number of native-born non-Hispanic whites during the day shift.
"There were once whole neighborhoods where illegal immigrants lived," said Jose, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of losing his job. "Now, many of those houses are empty."
The government scrutiny has even shaken the farming industry, which traditionally relies on seasonal migrant workers. The industry itself estimates that more than 75 percent of the work force is undocumented.
Not wanting to stir backlash from agricultural states, the federal government often looked the other way.
This summer, ICE began sending audit notices to farms and nurseries throughout California, a development that experts called unprecedented.
When David, the owner of a nursery company in California's Central Valley, got one in September, he decided it was time to join E-Verify. ICE determined that 30 of his 100 full-time workers were undocumented. If it had been during his peak season, probably 60 percent of his workers would have been found to be illegal, he figures.
David, who asked his last name not be used because of the potential negative impact on his business, said his company has been hurt, however.
Even though unemployment is at 17 percent in his region, he's had to hire 270 people to retain 190. He said it's been difficult to find reliable and hard-working people because of the nature of the jobs. Employees have to tend to the plants on their hands and knees in temperatures that can reach up to 110 degrees.
Of the U.S. citizens he's hired, 20 percent of them are on probation, 10 percent are being monitored for drug use, and three of them are taking anger management classes.
"I've had my first gang fight, and I've seen more tattoos than I've ever seen in my life," he said.
While he acknowledges some of the new workers simply need training, he predicted many of them won't stay. Two of the new employees, U.S.-born Hispanics, quit 20 minutes into loading plants on a trailer and told him he should hire "wetbacks," a derogatory term for undocumented Hispanic workers.
"I'm not going to badmouth American citizens, but they ain't used to doing what I do," David said.
However, he added that he doesn't think the current system is working either. "It's not fair to the employer, the employee and society as a whole."
Reed, the former immigration official, thinks the Obama administration has a political opportunity to continue with a stricter immigration policy because the public has become much more pro-enforcement in recent years.
A decade ago, with the encouragement of politicians from both sides of the aisle, Reed tried to shift away from raids to audits of the meat packing industry in the Midwest. However, there was such an outcry from lawmakers that his bosses shut it down.
"It really demonstrates how conflicted this nation is over enforcement of immigration laws," said Reed, who now works outside the government with meat packing plants to bring them into compliance. "Everyone who criticized the government for not doing enough ended up complaining when we actually did something."
However, Reed, who supports the audits, acknowledges the difficulty of balancing the need for enforcing immigration laws against the demand for workers.
"What I didn't fully appreciate at the time is a lot of these companies are the backbone of the economy in small towns across America," he said. "If you deny them access to unauthorized workers, you really turn communities upside down."
(Tish Wells in Washington and Franco Ordonez of The Charlotte Observer contributed to this article.)
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