NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — Their cars overflowing with televisions, bicycles and clothing, thousands of Mexican migrants are making the trek home for the holidays.

But this year, with terrorism and a recession plaguing the United States, some say they may stay for good.

Waiting in this border city for a government permit to take his well-packed van deep into Mexico, Julio Servin, 25, said he's not just bringing gifts back to his hometown of Los Reyes, he's moving back for good, along with his wife and 4-month-old daughter — a U.S. citizen.

Servin has seen his share of danger the past seven years, slipping back and forth across the border, fording the Rio Grande, running through the brush to evade the U.S. Border Patrol, then making his way to New York state.

But after the World Trade Center fell a little more than an hour from his home, he decided that earning dollars wasn't worth the risks anymore.

"I didn't feel safe. Things just weren't the same as before. We didn't feel comfortable walking around with bioterrorism and everything, especially now that we have a baby girl," Servin said as his wife nursed the infant in the back of their van outside the Mexican Customs office. "Man, those people (terrorists) are crazy. You don't know what they could do next."

Servin, a mechanic, plans to open a garage in Los Reyes, about 65 miles northwest of Mexico City in Michoacan state.

Nearby, Antonio Garcia, 45, reloaded his truck after Customs agents checked the towering mound of blankets, toys and other goods he was hauling. He said he had no choice but to come home.

"There's no work up there anymore," said Garcia, who lost his job as a waiter at an Indianapolis restaurant after the economy slumped. "I was out of a job for two months and couldn't pay my rent. They are laying off a lot of people, and the undocumented workers are the first to go."

Three of the six men traveling with Garcia also had lost their jobs. The men had been working in different parts of the United States and met up for the long ride to Michoacan, where all plan to look for work.

While officials say it is too early to be sure, there are indications terrorism and the U.S. economic slump may be slowing Mexico's century-old flow of migration to the north.

Immigration arrests along the U.S.-Mexico border have dropped dramatically. For the year until Sept. 11, arrests were already down 25 percent from 2000. After the terror attacks, arrests dropped 54 percent from the same period the previous year, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service says.

Mexican officials said their 46 consulates in the United States have seen a dramatic jump in applications for Mexican passports and other documents used to return home by Mexician citizens living abroad, who are known as "paisanos."

The number of migrants returning this Christmas season is expected to be 9 percent above the 2 million who made the journey in 2000, said Mexico's top immigration official, Felipe de Jesus Preciado.

Sergio Casanueva, coordinator of the National Paisano Program, a government program that assists returning migrants, thinks most of the returns will be temporary.

"People are going to come back and talk with their families over Christmas and see what possibilities there are for them in Mexico," he said. But more than anything, they just want to visit to assure their families that everything is fine, he said.

Casanueva expects only 2 percent to 3 percent of returning migrants will remain in Mexico.

A mass return could present problems for Mexico, already stumbling from its own recession, which has more than a half million people unemployed.

But illegal immigrants who hope to return to the United States after the holidays say it won't be easy to cross the border with the tightened security. Mexican officials are warning all migrants — even those who have U.S. visas — to carefully plan their return trips.

Jose Luis Lopez, 24, from the central Mexican town of Arandas, said he will hire a smuggler on his return, but the trip will likely cost him double what it did in the past due to heightened security.

Down the road, Renato Benitez, 33, said many migrants are caught between struggling on meager wages in Mexico or attempting to cross the more-secure border.

"Osama bin Laden is making it tough for everyone," he said.