U.S. Economy Discourages Foreign Day Laborers

Day laborers waiting for a job in Tucson i i

hide captionDay laborers are finding work increasingly scarce as construction jobs are slowing. Some workers, like these in Tucson last April, sometimes go several days, weeks or months without work.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Day laborers waiting for a job in Tucson

Day laborers are finding work increasingly scarce as construction jobs are slowing. Some workers, like these in Tucson last April, sometimes go several days, weeks or months without work.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Arnoldo Borja, of the Legal Aid Justice Center, talks with immigrant day laborers in Annandale, Va. i i

hide captionArnoldo Borja of the Legal Aid Justice Center talks with immigrant day laborers in Annandale, Va.

Jennifer Ludden/NPR
Arnoldo Borja, of the Legal Aid Justice Center, talks with immigrant day laborers in Annandale, Va.

Arnoldo Borja of the Legal Aid Justice Center talks with immigrant day laborers in Annandale, Va.

Jennifer Ludden/NPR

A Commerce Department report that construction of new houses shot up a surprising 22 percent in February may give hope to some of the thousands of largely Hispanic day laborers who have cobbled a living from the recent housing boom. But others, who have endured increasing difficulties since the housing collapse two years ago, are making plans to leave.

"The other day I told my wife on the phone, 'If I can just get a plane ticket — however I can find the money for that — I'm coming back to El Salvador,'" says Jose Maria, a 59-year-old landscaper who doesn't want to use his full name because he lacks legal status.

Jose Maria spends entire days standing along a busy commercial strip in Annandale, Va., waiting for work. A few years ago, men here say this was a seller's market: Day laborers could choose whom they wanted to work for. But now, increasing numbers of men are showing up for fewer jobs. Jose Maria says he used to send $300 a month to his wife and youngest daughter in El Salvador, but has had no work for the past four months.

"I'm asking myself, 'What am I doing here?'" he says. "Look at all these people waiting for work. It's a tragedy." Jose Maria worries there is less money to be made back home, but if there's also no money here, he figures he should at least be with his family.

A Silver Lining?

"I think we have to reconsider a lot of things," says Arnoldo Borja, a community organizer with Legal Aid Justice Center, which advocates for day laborers. Lately, Borja has become something of a social worker-cum-psychologist for these men.

"When I talk to these guys about what is happening right now, it should be a good lesson for us," Borja says. He says more laborers are recognizing the importance of what they do have in their home countries — family and friends — and he sees that as a silver lining to the downturn.

Since October, Borja has driven two dozen men to the airport, all of them returning home. He says some were looking forward to getting closer to children they barely know. One young man confided he was a bit worried about having left his even younger wife back home alone for so long. Borja hears more and more men talk of leaving, but it's not at all clear how big this trend is.

"There is an equal number, if not many more day laborers who have decided to remain, and hunker down and wait out the recession," says Abel Valenzuela, a professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at UCLA. He's studied day laborers across the country and says migrants know the global recession has hit their home countries as well. Valenzuela believes many will decide that hanging on here a few more months is worth it.

"Moving back home will, I think, likely result in much worse conditions for them," he says.

But in Virginia, conditions are already becoming desperate. Many of the day laborers are worried about paying their rent, and some say they've begun to see men sleeping outside. Everyone seems to know someone who's given up and left.

"Even the contractors who used to hire me for construction projects have started to leave!" says one young man in paint-splattered jeans. The contractors were immigrants themselves, and their departure does not bode well for the work prospects of those on this street.

Borja moves among the clusters of men, trying to boost morale where he can. As several men discuss what they might do back in their home countries, Borja counsels them to expand their skills and study English. That way, he tells them, they'll be more marketable when the economy picks up and they decide to come back.

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