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GOSHEN -- College student Rolando Barba thinks many area Hispanic immigrants may have packed up and gone home during the last few months, yielding to the unfavorable economic conditions in Elkhart County.
Fellow resident Jose Fernandez and Goshen Community Schools Superintendent Bruce Stahly have heard the same. So have Goshen College professor Jerrell Ross Richer and Elkhart businessman Alvaro Marquez.
But it's not so.
Hispanic students constitute more than a third of Goshen Community Schools' student population. If an exodus of Hispanic immigrants from the area had taken place, administrators would likely have noticed. But Stahly's regular checks of student attendance show only a fraction of 1 percent decrease in the corporation's student count over the last several months.
The Sept. 1 to Dec. 1 average daily membership at Goshen Community Schools decreased last year by 68 students, a paltry eight students more than the same period in 2007. And Hispanic students still constitute more than 36 percent of the student population, down less than 1 percent from 2007.
Jerrell Ross Richer is an associate professor of economics at Goshen College and also a resident faculty research fellow with the Intercultural Center for Teaching and Learning on campus, which studies "all things Hispanic" as he describes it. He has some students working on the impact that an exodus of Hispanic immigrants from the area would have on the local economy, and others working on whether or not such an exodus has already begun.
"It seems to be more of a plan than a reality," he said of their findings thus far. Neither their findings nor the experiences of local residents seem to support the theory that a mass exodus of Hispanic residents from Elkhart County is occurring, although undeniably a few have left.
Elkhart businessman Alvaro Marquez knows a half a dozen single people or families who have gone home to Hidalgo, Mexico, and another couple of households who are debating doing the same. But most of his family, friends and acquaintances are simply lying low, trying to wait out the economic downturn.
"There are still a lot of us here," said Marquez, even though his business, Hidalgo Restaurant, has seen only a few Hispanic customers recently.
"Two weeks ago they stopped coming. But I understand that. They need to save, and with the expenses from Christmas, a lot are barely paying the rent. So they can't eat out." Those few who have left have done so because their place of employment went out of business. But everyone else is waiting and hoping, he said.
Teacher Miriam Miller hears her Hispanic English as a New Language students at Goshen Middle School talk about moving in with family or friends due to economic hardships. Some are being told by parents that they're leaving. But they've been saying that for months, she adds, and they're still here.
She figures that from the start of the year, her program has lost "six or seven families." Some indicated they were going home, others that they were heading to other areas of the U.S. to try their luck.
According to Miller, most families understand that the connection between the U.S. and the Mexican economy is fairly direct. If things are bad here, they're generally worse there.
"One family told me they called and told their family at home that they were coming back, and they said, 'Are you crazy?' It's worse there. As long as they're here, at least there's a chance of getting ahead," Miller said.
The Mexican National Council of Population reported recently that it can find no evidence that a large-scale return of Mexicans to their home country is taking place. Rather, high crime rates and unemployment at home motivates even unemployed immigrants to tough out the recession in the U.S., where at least there's still a chance that they will return to work.
Richer said the money that immigrants take back to Mexico "helps for a while." And going back is easier if an immigrant can live with family.
"But eventually, you still need a job," Richer said.
"Definitely that's what's happening," Marquez said. "If we go back, there aren't any jobs for us. At least here, there's a chance."
So the plan is to watch and wait for now.
Those who have children in school here are also delaying the decision for that reason, Barba believes. Marquez, Miller and Richer say they've also heard that illegal immigrants are holding out hope that President Barack Obama will act to improve their situation now that he's in office.
But even if the political and economic climates change, will they change in time?
Everyone in the local Hispanic community seems to know someone who's already walked away from a mortgage payment and moved in with someone else, trying to hang on a while longer.
Pew Hispanic Center in Indianapolis says 3 percent of Latinos nationally have seen their homes go into foreclosure this past year and another 53 percent of foreign-born homeowners think they're headed that way.
A survey conducted by the Center reflected Marquez's experience, revealing that 71 percent of Hispanics saying they're no longer eating out. And here in Indiana, fewer are on the roads since the Bureau of Motor Vehicles revoked the driver's licenses of those who could not produce legal proof of identity in 2007. But the consensus is that they're still here, just not as visible.
At the end of January, by which time even stragglers have returned from Christmas visits to Mexico, Stahly plans to put the numbers under a microscope. Any significant reduction in the number of Hispanic students in the corporation will further reduce the amount of funding it receives from the state -- at the same time property tax caps are already throwing school systems across the state into a frenzy of activity to try and cover projected shortfalls.
GCS also has a building project on hold due to the the recession. The district would re-examine the need for the project if enrollment declines.
Richer thinks that Hispanics will leave, even though it's not in the area's best economic interest. What immigrants, even illegal immigrants, take from the local economy is outweighed by what they contribute in their consumption of goods and support of the housing market, he said.
A prolonged economic recovery may force their hand, however.
Until then, 4-H leader Carol Denlinger will continue to meet with her mainly-Hispanic group on the south-central side of Elkhart. Last year the 40-some children in the South Side Clovers turned in at least one project each in their first year of 4-H. In December, after a break of several months following the county fair, the Clovers met to regroup and almost every family showed up.
And while they won't start their projects quite yet, Denlinger's planning on them for 2009.