From a spare, second-floor office in Queens, an outpost of the Ecuadorian government offers English classes, computer training and after-school programs to immigrants building new lives in New York City. But these days, the office’s busiest program works in the opposite direction — helping Ecuadorians go home.
The program, “Welcome Home,” offers an array of incentives to lure immigrants back to Ecuador: money to start new businesses, one-way airplane tickets and a waiver on import taxes and fees on any belongings they take home.
In a slow-growing U.S. economy that offers employment mostly in the low-paying service sector, a rising number of people are accepting the offer, Ecuadorian officials say. Ecuador’s economy is also sputtering, with oil prices hovering around $50 a barrel, but many Ecuadorians are willing to go home anyway.
The motives of the migrants vary. Some have been unable to find work; some miss their families, or want to retire at home. Some have been here for decades, while others have just arrived.
Victor Lopez, 49, is preparing to leave after 21 years. The decision was so hard, he said, that he was “still shaking” as he visited the government office to fill out paperwork.
Mr. Lopez is leaving for many reasons — his hours as a restaurant manager were cut, he is tired of waiting for a green card, he has missed enough of his children’s lives — but the economy, he says, was the final straw. “Whatever I’m making, I’m using to pay the bills,” he said. “I can work to survive back in Ecuador, and there I can be surrounded by all my family.”
Ecuador is not the only nation to offer aid to returning countrymen. Many nations, including Ethiopia, Jamaica and Morocco, waive sizable import taxes on goods brought back. Some, like El Salvador and Mexico, offer bus fare and educational assistance to returning people deported from other countries.
But immigration experts say Ecuador stands out for its aggressive promotion of its campaign — in New York, it advertises in bus-stop shelters and on Spanish-language television — and for its special ministry dedicated to migrant affairs.
By no means has the program ignited an exodus. The Ecuadorian population in New York City has risen steadily over the past decade, to an officially estimated 175,000. Unofficial figures say that there are 700,000 Ecuadorians in the New York state – New Jersey area, and, in all, more than 1.8 million are in the U.S. But the ranks of those leaving have grown, too. Last year, the Queens office assisted more than 4,000 people with tax waivers as they left the U.S. and say the number of takers is rising rapidly.
Pablo Calle runs the local arm of the program from the Casa Ecuatoriana in the Corona section of Queens. He said the office had been overwhelmed with requests for help moving back.
One recent morning, more than a dozen people — everyone who came through the front door except a deliveryman — wanted to register for the program or learn more about it.
“Everybody comes here,” Mr. Calle said as the lobby chairs began to fill up.
Many in this steady stream of people, young and old, said they were finished with the scramble of immigrant life.
Luis Paramo, 32, a truck driver, said his work had dried up over the past two years. After seven years in this country, he said, he and his wife, Isabel, are planning to return to his family’s home in central Ecuador. They said many friends in New York had already gone back.
Ecuador runs similar “Welcome Home” services in other U.S. cities with large concentrations of Ecuadorians, including in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Miami. The program is also offered in Europe, especially in Spain, the UK, and Italy.