MEXICO CITY–Drivers passing the small town of San Gregorio Atlapulco in the southern outskirts of Mexico City during the Christmas season will come across a stand sheltered in a festive red tarp selling poinsettia flowers, or nochebuenas.

The Camacho family runs the stand each year to supplement their agricultural income during the holidays.  But since 2001, one by one each of the Camacho brothers—who asked to be referred to by their nicknames of Chino, Lolo and Gordito—left San Gregorio for more lucrative work in San Francisco.

So on a bright Sunday in November, the Camacho matriarch—known to family and neighbors as Mama Cata—stood in the red shade of the stand’s tarp busily selling the potted Christmas plants in shades of red, yellow, white, and pink.  This year, she alone managed the stand.

“It hurts that they had to go so far,” said the mother of six about her three absent sons, a straw visor shielding her eyes from the noontime glare.  “But that’s the way life is.”

Though the brothers don’t send money to their mother on a monthly basis, saved wages from construction and painting jobs helped finance her stand’s inventory this year. Despite a slowdown in the building sector, they managed to send Mama Cata $1,000 so she could purchase 700 plants to start her business.

In that $1,000 is the paradox of what might very well keep the Camacho brothers, and other immigrants, in the United States.  Yes, work here is slow—so slow that the brothers are considering moving back to San Gregorio.  But, as with many immigrants who ache to go home, returning is still just a dream with an uncertain date. Perhaps in time for Christmas next year, they mused.  What keeps them here is not easy money or a good economy, but the realization that no matter how difficult it is to get work here, it is more difficult in Mexico; that to save $1,000 in Mexico would take them months, if not years.

“Its going bad there but its worse here,” said Erminia Camacho, 40, the eldest of six Camacho siblings who lives in San Gregorio and works as a teacher.

Clemente Ruiz, an economics professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, agreed.

“They will resist coming back because they left because there is no work,” he said.

Still, the dream persists.

“We’re almost ready to go,” said Chino, 31, while relaxing on a day off in the one bedroom Outer Mission apartment he shares with his younger brothers and a cousin.

“My life is there,” explained his brother, Lolo, 26.  Though he left San Gregorio at the age of 20, he learned enough of his mother’s recipes to cook his brothers longaniza and pozole that taste like home.

But soon, the reservations arose.  “There you can find people who will invite you to eat, but not to work,” he said.

The rest of the family in Mexico is also doubtful about what job opportunities the brothers—none of whom finished high school—will be able to find back in San Gregorio.

Agricultural jobs are by far the most numerous in San Gregorio, with many men farming lettuce on traditional Pre-Columbian raised beds known as chinampas.  Most farmers earn only $300 to $375 during a good month—just slightly more than minimum wage. But most also farm with no insurance and so a single frost will wipe out their entire investment and end any possibility of a profit.

Though Erminia Camacho would especially like to see her brother Chino return to raise the four children he is supporting with his U.S. wages, she knows it would be tough for him to earn enough in Mexico.

“It would be very difficult for him to make the decision to come back,” she said.

The economic decline sparked concern among analysts and government officials that immigrant workers would return to Mexico en masse, but a significant exodus from the United States has yet to be seen, they said.

In October, the Mexican government released data that the number of repatriated migrants was on track to remain steady in 2008, and would be on par with 2006 and 2007 levels of just over half a million returns a year.

“Most people will stay in the United States during the crisis, the migrants abroad will collaborate and support each other there,” said Fernando Mora, a spokesperson for the government’s National Immigration Institute.

However, remittances—the money sent home from immigrants who work in the United States—has slowed.  Remittances to Mexico in 2008 will drop by 4.4 percent compared to 2007, according to World Bank predictions.  In many Central American countries the drop will have an even greater impact, because while remittances account for less than 3 percent of the GDP in Mexico, they account for 24.7 percent of GDP in Honduras and 18.2 percent in El Salvador.

Yet even as the quantity of U.S. dollars sent to Mexico declines, the falling value of the Mexican peso—the current exchange rate of 13.5 pesos to the dollar marks a 30% fall in value since June—means a dollar in Mexico today goes farther than before.

The central state of Queretaro, in an attempt to prepare for a possible influx of returning migrants, surveyed migrants’ family members about their relatives’ work situation abroad.  The survey found that migrants were opting for lower paying jobs in the United States rather than returning home, according to Enrique Abedrop of the state’s planning and finance department.

But for some immigrant workers in the Mission District, coping strategies such as collaborating with others or adapting to lower wage jobs may not be enough to survive the crisis.

Luis, who asked to be identified with only his first name, left Mexico for the Mission two and a half years ago but recently lost his regular carpentry job.  Now the 33-year old bricklayer by training has resorted to waiting for day labor jobs on Cesar Chavez or the Home Depot.

Before Christmas, work was so scarce, Luis sent his wife and three children in Mexico City $150 but couldn’t put together the $500 he needed for his own rent, forcing him into a homeless shelter.

He said he will rejoin his family in Mexico at the end of 2009 even if it means aborting his dream of saving $15,000 to start a construction business and internet café back home.

“If I can’t meet my goals, the most valuable thing I have is my family,” he said.

But back in Mexico City his wife Rocio knows it is impossible to predict when exactly she will see her husband again.

“Its horrible to live with this uncertainty of what is going to happen, of what is not going to happen,” she said.

Likewise, Mama Cata won’t be holding her breath for her boys to come back to San Gregorio on a date certain.  When asked when she thinks they will move back, she looked up from her plants and shrugged.

“Who knows,” she said.  “They’re young men.”