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It is a different story for immigrant workers. Immigrants were hit earlier and harder by the economic downturn. Last year, while most household incomes were still rising, incomes in households headed by immigrants fell more than seven percent. That's according to the Pew Hispanic Center. And because of the construction slump, a quarter of a million Hispanics lost jobs in the past year. NPR's Jennifer Ludden spoke with some day laborers, many of them undocumented to see how they're coping.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: As morning rush hour ends, Guillermo Orellana is still waiting for a job. He and a room full of other young and not so young men here at this worker center in Maryland. Orellana first came to the US from Honduras to work construction in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. But lately, he, his wife, and baby daughter have had to endure months with no work.
Mr. GUILLERMO ORELLANA (Immigrant Worker): (Spanish spoken)
LUDDEN: Before I'd sent home 150 to $200 a month he says for the two older children we left in Honduras. It would pay their school fees, transportation, clothing, and food. Now, he says, I can't send anything. We've explained to the school principal and he's being patient. Orellana says, some days, he can't even buy himself a decent meal.
Mr. ORELLANA: (Spanish spoken)
LUDDEN: I'll have a candy bar or some orange juice just to have something in my stomach. Orellana says his wife has kidney stones and has an appointment today. The health clinic charges $20, he doesn't have it.
Unidentified Woman: Eduardo Salazar?
LUDDEN: One by one, a manager calls names. There's a job.
Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)
LUDDEN: The number of people seeking work here in Wheaton and at other CASA Maryland centers is up 50 percent. And it's not just Latinos anymore, Africans, Asians, even African-Americans have started showing up. The employers are changing, too. Fewer companies with long-term work, more homeowners with odd jobs like this one who needs help putting in a fence.
Ms. TONA CRAVIOTO (Manager, CASA): How many hours is it going to be, Mrs. Emmanuel?
Mrs. EMMANUEL (Homeowner): At least four.
Ms. CRAVIOTO: OK.
Mrs. EMMANUEL: Maybe five.
LUDDEN: CASA manager Tona Cravioto says the center has gotten lots of requests for movers when a family is being evicted. CASA turns down those jobs on ethical grounds. Cravioto says some employers tried to negotiate down the center's mandatory minimum pay of $10 an hour. He refuses but everyone is cutting back where they can.
Mr. CRAVIOTO: What we are seeing in all centers, it's like the eight to 10 hours that they used to be higher regularly, they are down to six to four to three, whatever we have. For a job that used to hire three or four workers, now they hire two.
LUDDEN: With so little work, you might think many here will decide it's time to give up and head back home, but you'd have to think again. Day laborer Robert Businge shakes his head and smiles when he recounts a recent phone call to his family in Uganda.
Mr. ROBERT BUSINGE (Day Laborer): Because when I joke to them, I said, I think I should come back. They say to me, no. Here it is a more a thousand times worse than there.
LUDDEN: 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 here in Maryland about two weeks of each month. And still, 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.
Mr. BUSINGE: OK the economy is bad, but the little I'm getting, I have managed to put my children in better schools, at least, than before.
LUDDEN: Guillermo Orellana, the bookkeeper from Honduras, had hoped to save 10 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.
Mr. ORELLANA: (Spanish spoken)
LUDDEN: 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, he says, and believe things will improve, if you just wait. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.
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