Migrant workers at sharp end of US economic crunch

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Dec 16 2008 10:41 AM | Updated as of Dec 16 2008 06:41 PM

MIAMI - Erik Bengoche came to the United States with high hopes, ready to sweat it out as a laborer and short-order cook, and expecting to send home a modest stack of greenbacks.

But about a year ago, work started drying up. Now he sits in the parking lot of a home improvement store, hoping to pick up odd jobs, and looking forward to Christmas day, when he will fly back to Honduras.

"I owe three months rent. Sometimes you don't eat," he said, sitting on the curb under a shade tree. "I want to go back."

Low-wage immigrants like 25-year-old Bengoche find themselves on the sharp edge of the US economy slump, and some are packing their bags.

In October, a study by the Pew Hispanic Center suggested the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States was declining after years of robust growth. It put the current undocumented population at 11.9 million, down from 12.4 million a year earlier. It also tracked fewer new arrivals.

The data followed the center's earlier finding that non-citizen immigrants were being hit particularly hard by the crumbling economy.

In Florida, many had flocked to take advantage of a once bustling construction industry. But it was one of the first economic engines to sputter and stall when the mortgage crisis hit. Others work in hotels and restaurants -- businesses which are suffering as tourism dips.

"Everything is about the economy. With the crisis here, there are less jobs, so living here is apparently not as attractive as it was until a few months ago," said a Brazilian diplomat who has been monitoring reverse migration to her home country.

Requesting anonymity, she described those most likely to head home again as people who have been in the United States for two to five years, "not fluent in English," and "unattached."

The Pew Center said many factors could be at play. A majority of US immigrants come from Latin America, where economies have remained stable relative to the United States. Another factor could be a ramped-up immigration enforcement.

Bengoche, for example, said it had become harder to get work in big companies without identification papers proving legal status in the United States.

Drivers licenses, once considered valid proof of ID, are increasingly out of reach for undocumented immigrants, as officials comply with new federal anti-terrorism laws clamping down on access to such licenses without proper supporting documents.

Supporters of the restriction note that several 9/11 highjackers managed to obtain licenses, which they used to board the planes used in the 2001 attacks.

Immigrant advocates say the measure has pushed people like Bengoche further into the shadows, not to mention increasing the difficulty in getting to work in a country known for its car culture. Authorities are also ratcheting up deportations.

Economic woes are dragging down remittances too -- money sent home by immigrants to their families that often serves as a lifeline.

The Inter-American Development Bank recently reported that three million Latino immigrants stopped sending money home during the last two years. Many Latin American countries are still seeing an increase in remittances, but the increase has slowed.

"The reason remittances are down is because the US economy is slowing down, and because the immigration climate is still very negative," said Robert Meins, a remittance specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank.

In some cases, he added, immigrants are dipping into their savings to keep money flowing to loved ones.

"That's not to belittle how difficult they're finding it. Migrants are extremely adept and very resilient," he said.

In the meantime, US patrols are catching fewer immigrants on treacherous desert hikes across the Mexican border, and in overcrowded boats aiming for Florida's shoreline.

"I've lost my time," said Bengoche, who originally planned to stay in the United States for at least five years. By Christmas, it will be two. "I thought there would be more work."