Mexican immigration to the United States has slowed due to the economic downturn here and stricter immigration laws. In fact, for the first time in 40 years, there are as many Mexicans returning home as coming the U.S. Meanwhile, Mexico's economy has picked up after two decades of mediocre growth. But that growth isn't happening in sectors that benefit repatriated Mexicans.
Border crossings during the holidays are chaos. In Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, travelers haul truckloads of stuff from bicycles to lawn mowers and a multitude of toys. Most are going back to Mexico for a long vacation, others are returning for good. Like Ariel Espinoza, a self-employed construction worker from Florida.
"The construction business started to go down, down, down," he says. "And I don't see anything to start recover the old business. I lost one house, cars and properties."
In good times, Espinoza was making $40 an hour. That's dropped to $12 -- not enough to pay his bills and support his family. So, after 18 years, he's moving back to Mexico.
"It's the goal when you move to United States a better life, but right now it's hard," Espinoza says.
Mexico's economy is growing at about 4 percent per year, according to the International Monetary Fund. That makes it one of Latin America's more robust economies. But much of Mexico's growth is concentrated in trade and manufacturing, and these aren't the industries where low-skilled returning migrants are easily absorbed. Most are going back to farming, construction or to open a small shop at home. Many returnees will face a struggle.
At a school in the small town of Pastoría in the central state of Zacatecas, a teacher gives her students a science lesson. Zacatecas has a long history of sending migrants to the United States. But lately, the tide has turned. In last few years, this school has enrolled 43 new children whose parents moved back from the United States. Magaly Lopez Ruiz is the mother of three of those children. They moved from Virginia a year ago after her husband got deported.
In Virginia, Lopez says she made at least $600 a week cleaning apartments. Now she's unemployed and her husband works in the fields making about $10 a day. Other families at the school are in similar situations, barely making ends meet.
The benefits of Mexico's economic progress haven't quite reached its rural areas, according to Rodolfo Garcia Zamora. He's an economist who specializes in immigration at the Autonomous University in Zacatecas.
"In the absence of domestic opportunities, Mexico's rural working class sees immigration as the only way to get ahead," Garcia Zamora says.
That's because returning migrants are going back to a Mexico that's similar to the one they left. Some are lucky. They're returning with savings or to a home they built with remittance money. But half the population in Mexico still lives in poverty. Start-up loans are hard to come by and monopolies in everything from milk to telecommunications discourage budding entrepreneurs. Until those things change, some economists say migration north will likely continue.
Back at school in Pastoría, children blow up balloons to play a game of darts. Those who hold American passports don't plan on staying in Mexico long. One student, Christopher Acosta, says, his future is back in the United States.
"We're gonna go back, when we're a little bit more older like in high school we're going to leave Mexico," he says.
This story was produced in collaboration with reporter Lilián Lopez and Round Earth Media's Mexico reporting project.