Raleigh, N.C. — The number of undocumented Hispanic/Latino immigrants has dropped by more than 1.5 million nationwide since August 2007, according to the national Center for Immigration Studies.
In North Carolina, the estimated decline in that period is around 140,000 of the estimated 380,000 illegal immigrants in the state.
Of that number, a little more than 3,000 immigrants were deported last year as part of the federal 287(g) immigration program, which allows local law enforcement agencies to identify illegal immigrants arrested on local charges.
But the driving force behind the decline, the Latino community says, is, in part, the souring national and state economies.
North Carolina's unemployment rate is 9.7 percent, but Latino advocates believe that number is significantly understated since illegal workers are not counted.
With limited jobs, primarily in construction, undocumented workers find themselves unemployed and with no money.
Qué Pasa, a statewide Spanish-language newspaper, first began reporting on what it calls "the immigrant exodus" more than a year ago.
"We find out the recession hit, first, the Hispanic market, the Latino market," said Alejandro Manrique, the newspaper's executive editor.
Local agents who sell bus tickets say they believe more people would like to return to their home countries, but they can't afford to so.
One woman, for example, has been in the United States for two years. She says she plans to return with her 1-year-old twins to her home in Mexico. She and her husband have been struggling to feed the children since he lost his construction job several months ago.
Her husband will most likely follow in a month or two, she says.
There are at least three bus companies that have daily routes from Raleigh to Mexico with about a dozen stops throughout the state.
While business is surging for them, other area businesses are seeing a drop in revenue.
Leonor Martinez, who owns a salon, says her shop is making half the profit it did a year ago.
"Today, I cut someone's hair, and they're leaving on Sunday," Martinez said. "It's been hard, but I don't want to give up."
Joel Lopez, who runs Mi Paisano, a grocery store in Cary that caters to a Latino clientele, believes he has to hold on long enough for the economy to rebound.
"As soon as it picks up, I think people will start migrating back," he said. "Migrant workers tend to go with the supply-and-demand of the work."