PLANT CITY — On a Wednesday afternoon, in the gravel lot of El Expreso bus depot, Benito Ramos waits with his life packed in several plastic tubs.
After eight years in the United States, he is going home to Hidalgo, Mexico, to his mother and a small concrete block house built with the money earned clearing tables in Tampa restaurants.
"You can't survive like before," said Ramos, 28, standing in front of the clapboard depot building with its low-slung porch filled with passengers and suitcases.
When times were good, Ramos worked 16 hours a day at two restaurants, five days a week. His weekly check was $520. But for months, bosses have slashed his schedule. He was lucky to work six hours a day for two or three days, bringing in just $117 a week.
"It got to the point where you can't pay rent, you can't pay the bills," he said.
A few weeks ago, Ramos bought a bus ticket and joined legions — perhaps thousands — of illegal immigrants going back home.
The reason, immigrants and experts say, is the slow economy — particularly the crash of the construction industry and the slowdown in the retail and low-wage service sectors.
No one is certain about the size of the exodus. One group says the undocumented population has dropped 11 percent in a year. Other experts dispute those findings and say the decline is much smaller.
One thing seems clear: Those leaving tend to be single or unattached men like Ramos. They now face stiff competition from legal and illegal immigrants who had climbed the economic ladder and put down roots during the construction boom. Now they're all scrambling for jobs — even returning to the fields — and also face competition from out-of-work Americans.
Struggling and lonely, the single men say there's no point in staying.
"I miss my family," said Levi Salas Aguilar, 21, preparing to board a bus to Mexico, three years of construction work behind him. "You feel very alone here. It's not the same without your family."
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Alma Carvajal, the director at El Expreso terminal in Plant City, noticed a rise in business two years ago.
That's when more single men started buying one-way tickets to Mexico. Since then, business has climbed by 50 percent, she said.
"Three years ago, it was only full on weekends," she said of the 48-seat bus that arrives daily. "But today, every day it's full."
Van driver Antonio Trevino brings passengers from Sarasota, Tampa, Clearwater and Bradenton to the bus depot. Since January, most of his passengers have been single immigrant men headed home to stay.
"They made good money in construction, but now they go five or six months without work," Trevino said.
In July, the pro-enforcement Center for Immigration Studies issued a report that said the illegal immigrant population had declined 11 percent, or 1.3-million people, between August 2007 and May. It credits enforcement by immigration officials.
But critics dispute the study's findings, which are based on census data of Hispanics between the ages of 18 and 40 with a high school degree or less and unspecified immigration status.
Experts agree undocumented migration has slowed since 2007. But they attribute it to the economy, not enforcement.
"They don't migrate if they are not assured a job when they get to the United States," said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California at San Diego.
However, his research with Mexican migrant workers in San Diego led him to conclude that most illegal immigrants are staying put. With increased border enforcement, many have paid smugglers thousands of dollars to bring them and their families here. They aren't going to throw that away for even bleaker job prospects back home, he said.
"Nearly all of those with more than a year of U.S. residence and close relatives living with them in the U.S. intended to ride out the recession," Cornelius said. Unattached, jobless men would have more reason to leave, he added.
Single or unattached men make up a quarter of the estimated 12-million illegal immigrants, said Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington-based research organization.
Passel is preparing a report about the recent drop in undocumented migration, which had been growing by 500,000 people a year since 2000. Those days appear to be over.
"What almost certainly has happened is that fewer people are coming and more people are leaving," Passel said. "It's possible that the (overall population) numbers could be decreasing."
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Farmers are not worried.
As they prepare their fields for fall crops, their phones are ringing off the hook.
"Right now I have people contacting me asking me for work," said Don Balaban of Balaban Farms in Thonotosassa, who turns them down. "They are unemployed from the building trade."
Legal and illegal immigrants who had planted roots with good construction jobs are now competing for landscaping jobs and field work.
Alejandra Polanco, 28, grew up migrating with her parents. She hated it.
A permanent resident, Polanco installed drywall during the construction boom. Her husband installed air conditioners. They rented an apartment. They bought a Ford Escape.
Then they lost their jobs. Her husband's company hired him back. But he now migrates for construction jobs in other parts of the state. They moved in with his parents in Gibsonton.
Polanco unsuccessfully sought jobs at packinghouses. Now she might try the fields.
"I really don't care right now where I work, as long as I get paid and can help my husband," she said.
With more competition from unemployed construction workers, single men in the fields feel the squeeze, said Dave Moore, executive director of the Beth-El Mission in Wimauma. Come fall, there won't be enough farm jobs to go around, he said.
Immigrants like Ramos leave grateful for the work opportunities but weary of looking over their shoulders. In Mexico he plans to live off his savings and pick up some farm work, which pays very little. If the U.S. economy improves, he'll be back.
"Maybe in two or three years," he said.
Saundra Amrhein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2441.