During the global financial crisis in 2008, Poland was the only EU economy to avoid recession. While the U.S. economy shrank, Poland's continued to grow at a robust 5 percent and soon became among the fastest-growing in Europe. The gap between the countries had begun to narrow, and all at once, the forces that had guided generations of Poles toward America shifted into reverse.
Then, Poles in Chicago began doing something that was once unimaginable. They began packing up and going home. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of foreign-born Poles in Chicago dropped by 23,000 from 2000 to 2010.
At the Polish American Association, the entry-level ESL classes that were once packed with newly arrived Poles are now nearly empty. Attendance at Polish Saturday schools, where children learn to speak Polish, has dropped by 1,000 students over the past five years. And Polish travel agents, who once did a brisk business booking vacations, now advertise rates for shipping containers that can be used to send entire households back to Poland.
Across the city and the country, other immigrants were coming to similar conclusions. As Poles boarded one-way flights back to their homeland, so too did Mexicans.
Over the past few years, many Poles have gone home. Return migration is iconic of the post-Great Recession world. It's a global trend impacting a lot more places than just Chicago. However, cities that benefited the most from the influx of talent will be disproportionately impacted by the flow reversal.
The migration pattern is domestic as well as international. Chicago's regional draw is spitting talent from whence it came. Back to Iowa and Michigan they go, much more valuable now than when they left.