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As jobs vanished, immigrants left California. The question is how many

By Laurence Darmiento, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

The elderly couple could no longer hold on, so they picked up and left Los Angeles in July - returning to Mexico, a country they had not visited for years.

The husband, Dante, did landscaping and gardening, but work had dried up since the start of the pandemic. Typically, he earned about $120 a week, while his wife, beset with health problems, had been too ill to hold a job.

"His truck was packed up. He literally stopped by my house before he left. He said, 'Maybe if things get better I will come back,' " recalled Maegan Ortiz, executive director of IDEPSCA, an L.A.-based nonprofit that assists low-income Latino workers, including running area job centers.

The decision by the couple to return to Mexico is a testament to how severely the coronavirus has upended the economy, and in particular the lives of immigrants, who often work in low-paying jobs, have little savings and might not be eligible for all the assistance doled out to citizens, even if they have documentation.

Not only have immigrants disproportionately contracted COVID-19, but industries that rely on their labor - including restaurants and hotels - have also been among the slowest to rebound from the virus shutdowns.

That dynamic might be contributing to a trend of reverse or outmigration, in which immigrants return to their home countries or go to other U.S. states, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by UC Merced's Community and Labor Center that was provided to The Times in advance of its release Friday.

 

California's immigrant population of 10.3 million in 2019 fell by 642,200, or 6.2%, during the first five months of the pandemic, the analysis found. That figure eclipses both the number of residents in Sacramento and the combined decrease in the nation's other states, which saw immigrant populations decline by 531,000, or 1.5%, during the same March-through-July period.

The center analyzed data collected by the Census Bureau's monthly population survey of 60,000 U.S. households. It's possible the decline might be partially explained by the difficulty in connecting with immigrants amid the disruption caused by the pandemic. And some demographers say they would like to see if the numbers hold up in the larger American Community Survey, which surveys millions of people but lags. The Census Bureau releases the data each fall, but it's from the prior calendar year.

Edward Flores, a UC Merced sociology professor who conducted the analysis, said that while the Current Population Survey monthly data must be looked at with "caution," it's important to understand today, not just a year from now, how immigrant communities are being affected by the coronavirus - and what can be done to help them.

"Even without the pandemic, there was already a trend where there were a lot of migrants leaving California for other states," said Flores, who thinks the survey highlights the need for more financial assistance, especially to immigrants in the U.S. illegally. "This is the greatest economic disaster since the Great Depression. As a state, California is going to be better positioned if its workforce is growing as opposed to shrinking."

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