In their East Lake home, Marcos Tomás and his wife, Lidia Velázquez, recently packed 10 years of their lives into cardboard boxes, preparing for their long journey back to their native Guatemala.
“My dream was for my children to study and be raised here, but the current economic situation has stolen the dream I had for my children,” Mr. Tomás said, standing in an almost empty house with a few portraits of the family on the wall and a framed painting of the words “Home Sweet Home.”
The economic slowdown, high unemployment rates and tighter immigration laws are pushing local immigrant families to head back to their native countries, local residents and community organizations say.
Victor López, owner of La Michoacana, a Mexican grocery store on Main Street that sells bus and airplane tickets, said he has noticed more people traveling south with no plans to return.
Staff Photo by D. Patrick Harding Marcos Tomas Garcia, right, packs household items with his wife Lidia Velazquez as they prepare to return to their native Guatemala due to the economic crisis here in the U.S.
“Ticket sales have increased between 60 and 70 percent from last year and most people traveling are families, parents and children,” he said. “A lot of them say they are going back to Mexico or Guatemala because they can’t find a job here.”
Guatemalan Consul Beatriz Illezcas said the consulate in Atlanta has seen more people leaving the area, not only to other states, but back to Guatemala.
“Before, they would go to other states where there wasn’t so much persecution,” she said, referring to Georgia’s immigration laws, considered among the toughest in the nation. “But now they’re going back to (Guatemala). We’ve had a lot of people come to ask us for money because they’ve lost their job.”
The applications for Guatemalan passports have increased about 25 percent during the last three to four months, although there’s no data of how many of those are from people returning to Guatemala, said the Consul.
Although the illegal immigrant population has risen, its annual growth has slowed substantially since 2005, according to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center.
From 2000 to early 2005, the unauthorized immigrant population grew by an annual net average of about 525,000, increasing to 11.1 million. From 2005 to 2008, annual growth has averaged only 275,000, the report states.
In Dalton, Ga., Javier Delgado, who briefly owned a transportation business, said he knows a lot of people who have returned to their home countries.
“I have a lot of friends from Mexico, Guatemala, who have gone back because they say there’s no point of staying here,” he said.
“More than anything else I think it’s the economy that’s making people leave, a lot of companies are closing or cutting back hours,” said Mr. Delgado, who also works at Shaw Industries, which recently announced cutbacks of 450 employees. Mr. Delgado, however, kept his job.
Mr. Tomás first came to the United States in 1994 to work agriculture in Florida, he said. Between 1994 and 1997, he went back and forth between Guatemala and the United States twice before finally landing for good in Chattanooga.
Three years later, Mr. Tomás and Ms. Velázquez, whom he met in Chattanooga, got married and eventually had three U.S.-born children — Tania, Cesar and Cristina.
During the last eight years, the Guatemalan couple worked in chicken processing plants, carpet companies and temporary jobs until Mr. Tomás was laid off about three weeks ago from Big Horn, a saddle producer that closed.
“When we first came (to the United States), you could find a job in two or three days,” he said. “For the past two to three years, when you ask for a job, they tell you they’ll call you back, but they never do.”
On Saturday, Mr. Tomás and his family waited outside La Michoacana for their ride to Atlanta, where they took the three-day bus trip back to border of Mexico and Guatemala.
Flor de Maria Velázquez, Lidia Velázquez’ older sister, made the difficult trip back home with her sister and her family.
“I came to Chattanooga about three years ago and I’ve been unemployed for almost a year,” she said in Spanish.
Flor Velázquez said she made the decision to come to the United States and leave her four children — ages 6 to 15 — behind in Guatemala with relatives after her husband died six years ago and she couldn’t afford to support them.
“But I feel that now with the help of my oldest son, we are going to be able to succeed and get ahead in life,” she said of her 15-year-old son.
With teary eyes, Mr. Tomás said good-bye to friends and family who waved at them as the white van left the store parking lot.
Although Mr. Tomás and Mrs. Velázquez were sad to leave behind the lives they had built in Chattanooga, their three children were excited to finally meet their grandparents and live in a place where they’ve heard kids can have a lot of animals.
“I’m going to have 10 dogs in Guatemala and I’m going to meet my Grandma and my Grandpa and my cousins,” eight-year-old Tania said, smiling outside the store. Her 3-year-old sister Cristina said she would own a lot of chickens.
Mr. Tomás said they will start a new life in Guatemala and work in the fields just like they did before they came to the United States a decade ago.
“It’s not easy going back. You get used to the lifestyle here,” he said. “But we’re not from here and you have to return to where you are from.”
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...