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When Migrant Workers Return Home

Thousands of Latin-American migrants come to work in the United States every year, legally and illegally. But does their time in the U.S. help or hurt them when they return to their home countries?

As the midterm elections approach, many Americans are worrying about two things: the economy and immigration. Republicans are expected to come out ahead on these issues, although would-be voters may not realize that deportations have increased since Obama took office, as have crackdowns on employers — leaving many migrant workers, legal and illegal, unemployed.

Anecdotal evidence abounds indicating that, as the recession continues, more and more migrants are returning home, unable to find work.

On a recent trip through Central America, I found that conversation after conversation turned to the effects of the American economy on these workers. Reuben, who grew up in Kansas, spoke of his decision to return to his native Belize after months spent searching for work. A Guatemalan taxi driver told of his son's recent loss of a salaried job in the airline industry and subsequent choice to work as a mechanic to avoid returning south. The stories in Nicaragua were the same: The economic recession has left not only native-born Americans out of work, but also many of the migrant workers who, until recently, called the U.S. home.

According to a report released by the Pew Hispanic Center on Sept. 1, the numbers agree. The unauthorized immigrant population in the U.S. has declined sharply, especially among immigrants from Central American countries other than Mexico. From 2007 to 2009, the size of this group decreased by 22 percent. The center estimates that the total number of unauthorized workers totals 11.1 million, and the vast majority of them come from Mexico and other Latin-American countries.

Given the state of the economy, this makes sense: Because illegal immigrants are the group most responsive to the labor market, it follows that they would be more likely to return home as jobs disappear. (The number of illegal immigrants paints a good picture of migration as a whole, as the number of legal immigrants to the U.S. has remained roughly constant — at 400,000 per year — since 1986.)

In theory, migration offers workers an opportunity to accumulate capital, both human and financial. The money saved working abroad can be invested in future business ventures or used to increase household consumption, and working internationally can give migrants new skills that make them more attractive to potential employers.

While feelings on immigration, legal or not, vary widely in the United States, it's easy to understand why nonresidents would seek work there. One study found that there's a "place premium," which means that how much money virtually identical workers make is determined in part by where they work. For example, the average Puerto Rico-born and ethnically Puerto Rican 35-year-old urban male with nine years of education would make on average 1.5 times more working on the United States mainland than he would in Puerto Rico, a territory of the U.S. An urban Mexican male in the states with the same age and education level would make 2.5 times more than one with the same characteristics would in Mexico.

That's a pretty big incentive to cross the border — and a pretty good reason to stay. (Well, that and the predator drones.) Income aside, does work experience in the United States help or hurt the migrant workers who return home?

A July paper in The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science tries to answer this question. Authors Salvador D. Cobo, Sylvia E. Giorguli and Francisco Alba used data from the Mexican Migration Project and the Latin American Migration Project to determine the effects work experience in the United States has on the careers of migrant workers from Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Puerto Rico.

To measure this, they focused on the occupations held by male heads of household (the group most likely to work abroad) at age 25, when they were just beginning their working lives, and at age 45, after returning home from the U.S. They defined return migration as having completed one trip to and from the United States; some people made several trips, and some were living abroad at the time of the survey, having made at least one trip back to their native land.

"The return has always been an integral part of the international migrant experience. In the case of Mexico, this return is aided by the geographical proximity and the impossibility of reuniting with the family in the destination places without documents," Cobo told in an e-mail interview. He and his team also wanted to contribute to the migrant worker conversation by discussing something other than remittances, which much of the academic research on the subject to date has focused on. (Remittances are the money sent home by people who are working abroad; the International Fund for Agricultural Development estimates that these transfers total more than $300 billion per year.)

The researchers compared the occupational progression of the migrants to neighbors who stayed put. They found that, at the beginning of their careers, workers who did not migrate had better jobs than those who did. This didn't surprise them; someone with a good job is less likely to seek employment elsewhere.

More educated workers were more likely to see their employment prospects improve. Other factors associated with greater occupational achievement were working in a non-manual job and having more experience in the U.S.

While they found that overall, working in the U.S. translates to better prospects at home, this was not always the case. Type of employment, age of initial migration and time spent working in the U.S. influenced individuals' experiences.

For example, agricultural employment didn't really help workers improve their lot. As the authors explain, "Working in the United States as a farm laborer can generally be expected to yield few resources for occupational mobility upon return; in contrast, working in occupations such as busboy or waiter at a restaurant affords workers the opportunity to learn English and interact with English-speaking customers, a potentially valuable skill in Mexico's large tourist industry."

In general, migrating to the U.S. at a young age (25 or younger) increases a worker's chances of upward mobility, especially if he is from Costa Rica or Guatemala, the two countries in the study with the most fluidity.

"The young adults would have, to a certain extent, better incentive to actively accumulate human and/or physical capital," Cobo suggests. That is, the younger a migrant is, the more opportunity they theoretically have to make the most of their foreign work experience.

Having U.S. legal documents and making more trips are associated with lower chances of occupational achievement at home, likely because people who can work legally in the U.S. (and more frequently) would prefer to do so.

While employment experience in the United States had a positive influence on the Latin-American migrant workers in the study overall, one factor that really determines occupational mobility is the number of opportunities available in their local communities after they return home. As Cobo points out, "The skill set for the repair of computers would have little usefulness in labor markets in rural agribusiness zones." (The reverse is also true: Migrants with only agricultural knowledge have fewer options in metropolitan areas.)

Cobo says his study provides some support for the development of a new temporary worker program. In his opinion, such a program would help employers meet labor needs and increase productivity while also helping migrants capitalize on their employment experience abroad. "A temporary migrant workforce program would translate to benefits for employers and local economies and, at the same time, for the same migrants upon their return."

Not only would guaranteeing work make migrants' lives easier, it would also make it easier for the businesses that hire them. The migrants would have job security in the United States for a predetermined period of time, and the country in turn would be better able to tax and keep track of them. Plus, Cobo believes, it would make it easier for migrants get work experience that would put them ahead when they return home.

He admits that such a program would have to be accompanied by development in the countries of origin so that migrants have an opportunity to actually use their newly acquired skills upon their return. However, he argues, policymakers should see the migrant worker phenomenon as a tool for the economic development of both sending and receiving countries.

"With luck, the migratory dynamic in the Latin American region could be seen as a window of opportunity for the development of the same migrants, their families and their national job markets," he concludes.