U.S. economy forces Ecuadorians in exodus to home

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Ligia Moscoso (left), Sandra Gonzalez (center), and Milton Gonzalez (right) are among the Ecuadorians leaving New York and returning home.Ligia Moscoso (left), Sandra Gonzalez (center), and Milton Gonzalez (right) are among the Ecuadorians leaving New York and returning home.

Under the rumbling No. 7 line el along Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights hangs the red, blue and yellow sign of the Ecuadorian consulate. Clusters of down-and-out men sit on the sidewalk around the sign, waiting for a job that never comes. Most haven’t worked in weeks – or months, in some cases.

The immigrants’ usual living arrangement of two to three people per apartment is now closer to seven or eight as they struggle to pay the rent. Some can’t afford housing and become homeless. Those without documentation hesitate to seek social services and must often ask their families in Ecuador for money.

“If I’m going to starve, I’m better off starving in my country,” said Patricio Garces, an Ecuadorian-born U.S. citizen who plans to return home this year.

As the economy slows, some of New York’s Ecuadorians want to give up and go back home, but cannot afford the transportation. Some go directly to the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to get themselves deported. Meanwhile, the Ecuadorian government is encouraging its prodigal sons and daughters to return by offering business incentives.

Last year, 1,378 families left New York and returned to Ecuador, according to La Casa Ecuatoriana, a social service agency affiliated with the Ecuadorian Immigration Secretariat, also known as SENAMI. La Casa Ecuatoriana also reported a 33 percent increase in the number of people asking for help to return home.

“Many of them are facing hard times. Many are also in a situation where they’re spending all their savings. They say ‘I’d rather go home,’” said Pablo Calle, a SENAMI representative.

There are about 600,000 Ecuadorians in New York State and a third of them live in Queens, according to the advocacy group International Ecuadorian Alliance. Only 10 to 15 percent of the immigrants have documents, the group says.

The rest come to the country by any means they can find, often paying as much as $15,000 for the trip. Once they are here, they work primarily in construction or restaurants. A small number start modest businesses.

Before last year, the booming economy allowed Ecuadorian immigrants to send an annual $3.1 billion to loved ones back home, according to SENAMI. That number is down to $2.8 billion with fewer Ecuadorians able to find work.

“I do anything,” said “Carlos Loco” a day laborer, who did not want his real name used. “Construction, garbage. Anything.”

Carlos, who has been in the U.S. five years, used to send money to his family in Ecuador but now he sometimes asks them to wire him funds. If conditions don’t improve in a few months, he will try to return home, he said.

But going home takes money, too. Some Ecuadorians can’t afford a plane ticket. In desperation, they go to the American immigration officials to attempt to get deported.

“We had this case – this guy was 27 – he wasn’t able to find a job, had no money, came here for help, had wife and two girls in [Ecuador]. He went to the airport seeing if he could get deported,” said Calle, adding that airport employees turned away the man.

Deportation is not the best option for undocumented immigrants because they may not be able to return to the U.S. legally in the future. They can often face months of detention as they wait to be sent back, immigration advocates said.

Meanwhile, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has started the “Bienvenidos a Casa” or “Welcome Home” program to create financial incentives for people to return to Ecuador. In New York, La Casa Ecuatoriana administers the program, which pays for some transportation costs.

The program also subsidizes people who want to start a business in Ecuador. Last year, through the investment of $800,000, 1,300 jobs were created. This year, the Ecuadorian government wants to spend $2 million, officials said.

The new strategy is a shift away from the remittance-based economy that Ecuador relied on for many years. With the cash flow from the United States tightening, Correa is trying alternative ways to boost his country’s finances.

“We’re trying to provide these people with an opportunity to become something members of our economy,” said Calle. “They do learn important skills [in the U.S.] and we want to put these in service of Ecuador.”

However, the number of Ecuadorian immigrants who know about the program is “marginal,” Calle noted.

An awareness campaign is planned, though it’s unclear whether it will overcome many immigrants’ distrust of government officials.

“Many of these people are afraid to go to these places to look for help,” Garces said.