In the current economic crisis, immigrant workers have been hit early and hard, and this toll is showing up among those on the lowest rung of the economic ladder — day laborers, many of them undocumented.
At a day labor center in Wheaton, Md., the spare waiting room is unusually full as rush hour ends one recent morning. Groups of men sit chatting on metal folding chairs or refill plastic foam cups with yet more coffee, as they come to terms with the prospect of yet another day with no work.
Construction has long been a mainstay for jornaleros, but a quarter of a million Hispanics have lost jobs in the recent construction slump. Already last year, the incomes of households headed by noncitizens were down 7 percent.
For Guillermo Orellana, it's been a harsh change from his first year in the United States. He left his job as a bookkeeper in Honduras to ride the construction boom in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He came with his wife, and they would send home $150 to $200 each month — money that paid for school fees, transportation, clothing and food for the two children they'd left behind.
But these days, here in Maryland, they — and their U.S. citizen infant — must endure months at a time without work.
"Now, I can't send anything," Orellana says. "We've explained to the school principal, and he's being patient."
Some days, Orellana can't even buy himself a decent meal.
"I'll have a candy bar or some orange juice," he says, "just to have something in my stomach."
Orellana's wife has kidney stones and has an appointment scheduled on this afternoon, but he says he doesn't have the $20 the health clinic charges.
In recent months, the number of people seeking work here, and at other centers run by immigrant advocacy group CASA of Maryland, is up 50 percent. And it's not just Latinos anymore — Africans, Asians, even African-Americans have started showing up.
The employers are changing as well: fewer large companies offering long-term work, more homeowners needing help with odd jobs, and everyone's cutting back where they can.
"For a job that used to hire three or four workers, now they hire two," says CASA manager Tona Cravioto. He says employers that used to hire people for eight or 10 hours now cut that in half, and some even try to negotiate down the center's mandatory minimum pay of $10 an hour for unskilled work, $15 for skilled. Cravioto refuses.
One booming business? CASA has gotten many requests for movers to carry out evictions, but Cravioto says he turns them down on ethical grounds.
A Global Crisis
Even with so few jobs, it's hard to find an immigrant worker who's decided to give up and head back home.
Day laborer Robert Businge shakes his head and smiles when he recounts a recent phone call to his family in Uganda.
"When I joked with them, I said, 'I think I should come back.' They said, 'No! Here it is more than a thousand times worse,' " he says.
These workers know better than anyone that the economic downturn is global. The price of food and gas in their home countries has also spiked.
Businge says he's been lucky to find work in Maryland about two weeks out of each month. From that, the money he's able to send to his wife and four kids in Uganda is still three times what he earned as manager of a gas station there.
"The economy is bad, but [with] the little I'm getting, I have managed to put my children in better schools, at least, than before," he says.
Orellana, the bookkeeper from Honduras, had hoped to save $10,000 or $20,000 to start a business back home. That seems like a pipe dream now, but as he considers his options, Orellana sounds a lot like a battered investor in the stock market.
"If we go back to Honduras now," he says, "it's for nothing. All our sacrifice will have been a waste. You have to remain an optimist inside yourself and believe things will improve, if you just wait."