The men and women listened to the pitch intently. Ecuadorean immigrants, each had made sacrifices to make the journey north, to live the American dream.
Only now, there was a new call – the Ecuadorean dream?
"Welcome home," said Pablo Calle, an Ecuadorean government representative, to the immigrants filling a room in downtown Patchogue, New York. "We want Ecuadoreans to return to Ecuador."
As the economic crisis deepens, developing countries like Ecuador are hoping to lure immigrants – and their money – back with financial incentives.
The plan was launched last year, but the Ecuadorean National Secretariat for Migrants, or SENAMI, began marketing it more aggressively as "Bienvenidos a Casa" this year through Casa Ecuatoriana, its social outreach arm, which opened an office in Corona, Queens, last August.
The government is waiving duties on most goods and cars, creating a bank to help immigrants get loans and offering competitive grants of up to 25 percent of initial costs for immigrants who start businesses in Ecuador. "We understand that Ecuadoreans have left the country because they didn't have economic opportunities in Ecuador," said Calle, SENAMI's U.S. representative. "It is our responsibility to give them an alternative to come back."
From January 2008 to May 2009, about 5,000 Ecuadoreans in the United States have returned home under the plan, Calle said. Most were undocumented.
Michele Wucker, executive director of the World Policy Institute, said the program is promising with the proper support. "If someone is thinking about going back, this is a way to get at that dream of coming to the United States and going back to your home country to open your own business," she said.
Patricio Coronel, 39, of Patchogue, is moving back to Ecuador Aug. 16, joining his wife and children who went back last year. He hopes to open a restaurant. "Working here is a little hard for me right now," said Coronel, a cook who has lived in the United States for 20 years. "I think we're going to have a better life over there."
Coronel said he's taking advantage of the duty-free policy to take his car and belongings back, but his business plans are too modest to be eligible for a grant. "They want a restaurant that creates new jobs," he said. "We can't do that. We gotta start small."
Some remain skeptical. Olga Imbaquingo, the New York correspondent for El Comercio, a newspaper in Ecuador, said the program is political rhetoric. "There is no real tangible support there," Imbaquingo said. "There are no jobs here, but there are really no jobs there."
Her opinion seems to be shared by most Ecuadorians living in the U.S. The 5,000 who have elected to return home represent only a tiny percentage of the estimated 1.5 to 1.75 million living in the New York – New Jersey area. Wucker acknowledges that the program is a tough sell.
But to those at last week's Patchogue meeting, the idea was intriguing. Angel Borja, 45, of Islip Terrace said he knows close to 100 people who have moved back to Ecuador over the past year. "It's a good idea, especially at this time when the economy in the U.S. is very bad," he said. "People are unemployed; they don't know what to do."
Borja said the plan will appeal primarily to those already planning to move. But it also seemed to resonate with those like CristÃÂ³bal Ulloa, a U.S. citizen and computer technician.
Ulloa, 38, of Medford, said he never thought he'd move back. But the idea of government help gave him visions of starting a business to educate people in his hometown of Gualaceo about computers.
"My idea is to go back some day," Ulloa said. "Some days you get tired of here. You have to work all the time; it's kind of a stressful life."
Credit: Sumathi Reddy, Newsday, www.newsday.com