Over the past decade, Ecuador’s top export has been people – and their most popular destination is New York City. Demand for immigrant labor in the U.S. and Europe coupled with economic crises at home has led 2 million of Ecuador’s population of nearly 14 million to live abroad.

Estimates of the local Ecuadorian population range from U.S. Census Bureau data putting the number at 169,622 in the five boroughs, while a 2006 European Union Commission report on Ecuador suggests an accounting that fully included the undocumented could double or triple the official numbers. Ecuadorians also account for a sizable fraction of the more than half-million undocumented immigrants the Department of City Planning estimates live in New York City.

Will this small South American country continue to have an outsize presence here? A CUNY Graduate Center report in 2007 rated Ecuadorians as the second-fastest growing Latin American group in New York City. But since the economy has sunk around the globe, migration has slowed, and many immigrants both skilled and unskilled, either with papers or undocumented, have either returned to their home countries – or at least given the possibility serious consideration, perhaps for the first time. That’s because their earnings have taken a dive. Although the amount immigrants send back to their families in the form of remittances is second only to oil revenue as a source of income for Ecuador, in 2008 remittances fell by more than 20 percent, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

The Ecuadoran immigration agency, Senami, sees the shifting tides of fortune as an opening to reel in more human capital. Senami’s Casa Ecuatoriana in Corona, Queens – where the greatest number of Ecuadorians live – is even running a program encouraging immigrants to return to their native land. Bienvenidos a Casa, it’s called: Welcome Home.

Senami is hoping for a mass return. With fewer remittances and lowered oil prices, it has become clear that Ecuador’s reliance on oil and citizens abroad is unsustainable. According to Pablo Calle, Senami’s U.S. representative, part of the country’s new economic plan is the return of migrants. His agency sees it as “an opportunity to use their new skills and resources to support the development of Ecuador.” The year-old program promotes the return of immigrants by waiving duties for belongings brought back and offering subsidies for new businesses in Ecuador.

The offers might appeal to someone like Queens resident Manuel M. He stopped sending money home when he lost his construction job a year and a half ago. Undocumented, Manuel does not qualify for government benefits and rarely gets work. Now 53, he recalls with bittersweet pride his life in Quito. “There I was a professional,” he said. “Now when I don’t work, I go out on the streets to recycle bottle and cans.”

Manuel’s life in New York is different than he envisioned it would be 14 years ago when he paid smugglers $4,100 to bring him to New York. Recycling, he earns only $10 to $15 per day. Manuel used to support his family, but now they support him. He lives with his son, who supplies room and board.

Yet despite the hardships, Manuel says he is staying. He wishes he could return to Quito, but he doesn’t have the savings to get by there. “In my country there is very little work,” he said.

Calle of Senami says he understands that reasoning. “If you can’t find a job here, and you have no idea of what to do there, you are better off staying here.”

Other Latin American countries also have programs in place for returning immigrants.

Mexico waives the duty on household goods for returning nationals, and the Guatemelan Consulate has paid for the return bus tickets of immigrants in California. But Ecuador’s approach is unique because beyond offering support services, it is luring its nationals back as part of a development strategy.

Oswaldo M. of Westchester is one who has applied to Bienvenidos a Casa. Oswaldo, 25, is investing all that he has saved from five years of landscaping and construction work to start a modest cattle farm in Cañar, a poor province in Ecuador’s mountainous south. He hopes to return in the fall, with a subsidy from the Ecuadorian government.

“It’s not for the economy. I want to be with my family,” Oswaldo explained. Of America, he says, “I can’t do anything in a country that isn’t mine, where I am illegal.”

According to Vicente Mayorga, president of the locally-based United Front of Ecuadorian Immigrants, “The return is not massive. It is individuals who make the decision because they have savings and no job here. Many times they wish to be with their families.”

Mayorga believes others want to return, but can’t afford to. Some simply can’t pay for the plane ticket. But most can’t return because Ecuador offers meager wages for people who are not highly skilled professionals.

Analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, an independent think tank in Washington, seems to bear that out. A recent paper says, “return migration correlates more to economic, social and political development in the country of origin than to the job market in destination countries.” And The Economist predicts Ecuador’s economy will shrink by four percent this year. As wages in Ecuador remain comparatively low, immigrants are unlikely to return.

This is the case with Victor M. He says he would prefer to be a laborer in Ecuador, but there “you don’t earn more than $50 or $60 a week,” whereas here, with a fraudulent social security number, he made up to $600 a week at a Queens recycling plant.

His decade’s labor in New York has allowed him to provide a good life for his children in Ecuador, but still it pains him to be away. “I want to return in a year for my children—to go to my daughter’s graduation from the university,” he said.

To return, Victor has managed to save a little and invest in an Ecuadorian pension fund. Still, he doesn’t have enough to resettle in Ecuador, and returning for a short time and then reentering the U.S. is not a real option. The risk and cost of illegal reentry is too high.

According to Mayorga, many undocumented Ecuadorians in New York arrived here through the services of smugglers, coyoteros. Victor paid $6,200. He was flown from Ecuador to Panama, then crossed over land into Guatemala. There, he took a treacherous illegal boat ride to southern Mexico, and finally after two months of clandestine traveling at the break of dawn, swam across the Rio Grande into the United States.

Ease of reentry is an important factor in determining reverse migration, says Simone Wegge, an economist who studies migration history at the CUNY Graduate Center. Wegge says immigrants must consider: “If they do return, is it really easy to come back?” If not, she says, “They are less likely to return.”

By April, after 16 months in existence, Bienvenidos a Casa had only 3,381 participants worldwide, with about half the returnees coming from New York. Over the same period, Senami had subsidized only 78 new business plans proposed by returning migrants. According to Calle, the participants from New York are mainly long-term undocumented immigrants with significant savings.

Victor is determined to not repeat the voyage: “Now it would be $15,000 and be more dangerous.” Others cannot even consider a second journey, not having yet paid off the initial passage to New York.

Whether burdened by debt from the journeys, or just hindered by lack of opportunity back home, most Ecuadorians, no matter how bad the economy is in New York, will stay, but still they hold on to the dream of returning.

Even if their dreams do come true, many wonder what Ecuador holds for them after all the time away. “After 14 years, nobody will remember me. Nobody knows me,” Manuel reflected.

– Andrew Silverstein

For the names of the illegal immigrants quoted above, only first names and last initials were used, so this article would not facilitate prosecution.