TULTITLAN, Mexico — Alfonso Cordova lived in the United States for 30 years. He has a wife and two grown sons in Los Angeles, where he owned an auto repair shop until two months ago when he was deported to his native El Salvador.
Mr. Cordova, who spoke perfect English inside a packed migrant shelter here, now is scrambling to find a way back into the United States.
"I got a DUI one night," said the 44-year-old, who briefly lived in Laurel, Md., before settling in Los Angeles. "I was stupid. I just made a mistake, and I got busted."
The vast majority of undocumented Central Americans passing through Mexico are young first-timers, fleeing violence, unemployment and impoverished conditions in their home countries. But Mr. Cordova's story of seeking to reclaim a life in the shadows of U.S. law is not uncommon.
"I lived in Florida for five years," said Sebastian Ponce, 35, a native of Honduras who was deported from the United States in February.
Mr. Ponce, who sneaked back across Mexico's southern border in recent weeks, said he plans to find temporary work in the Mexican city of Saltillo.
His ultimate goal, however, is to make it back to Miami, where he earned $12 an hour working construction from 2007 through 2011.
"I was sending home about $250 a month. Now I'm going back to make more money," Mr. Ponce said. "In Honduras, there's no work and if you can find it, it pays only about $10 a day."
U.S. Department of Homeland Security statistics show that the number of migrants captured while attempting to cross the southern U.S. border illegally has declined sharply in recent years.
The number of Border Patrol apprehensions, a generally accepted barometer for illegal immigration in the United States, plummeted from 1,189,000 in 2005 to fewer than 465,000 in 2010.
The Pew Hispanic Center, meanwhile, released a study Monday saying that net migration from Mexico has fallen to zero, suggesting that the 40-year tide of some 12 million Mexican nationals crossing into the United States — more than half of them illegally — has come to an end. From 2005 to 2010, about 1.4 million Mexicans migrated to the United States and a similar number of Mexican immigrants and their U.S.-born children moved from the U.S. to Mexico, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
"The standstill appears to result from the weakened U.S. job market, heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations, the growing dangers associated with illegal border crossings, and changing economic and demographic conditions in Mexico," the center said on its website, www.pewhispanic.org.
While all of those factors may be true, ample evidence in Mexico shows that the number of Central Americans such as Mr. Cordova and Mr. Ponce migrating north continues unabated and may even be surging.
On Sunday, the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada cited interviews with relief workers at Catholic Church-run migrant shelters throughout southern and eastern Mexico in a report that said the number of Central Americans heading north has increased by 100 percent in recent weeks.
In some cases, women and children are also making the journey.
Juan Ramon Gomez Rosada, 38, accompanied by his wife, Sara de Carmen Carranza, 31, and his two sons, 12-year-old Edison and 11-year-old Kevin, sought refuge at the shelter in Tultitlan on a recent night before continuing by freight train toward the U.S. border.
"There's no jobs. I don't have a job. And I wanted to get my kids out," Mr. Gomez Rosada said. "They're at the age right now where they're very liable to be influenced by the gangs in our hometown."
For others, the motivations are different. "I've got 40 clients at my shop in Los Angeles," Mr. Cordova said. "The shop's been closed since I got deported. I need to get back."
He acknowledged that he did not pay taxes for several years while living in the United States. "I just never got papers. I never even tried," he said. "I was stupid."
Asked how he plans to sneak back into the country, Mr. Cordova said he was not sure. "I've got to think about it," he said. "Maybe Nogales. ... I've got to see. ... We're going to make it somehow."
• Keith Dannemiller contributed to this report.
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