By 9 a.m. on a cold Monday morning, Rafael Novarro has already put in a four-hour day waiting for work that never comes.
Laid off three months earlier as a carpet installer, the El Salvadoran immigrant regularly joins a group of immigrants standing at the edge of a gas station in Carbondale, Colo. They hope contractors will stop and offer jobs, even if the wages pale in comparison to just a few months ago. Every rumbling diesel truck offers hope, but each one pulls away again, and this crowd of 10 men, many wearing work boots, their work gloves stashed in their pockets, sweatshirt hoods pulled over their heads against the cold, remain behind.
“Almost nobody has any work,” says Rigoberto Leon Ruiz, one of the men waiting.
It’s a scene common in cities like Los Angeles or Houston but until recently unheard of in places like Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, home to Aspen, where jobs were abundant and employers relied on immigrants to fill work crews. The economic downturn has hammered the West’s resort economy, though, and it has hit immigrants particularly hard. More than others, they rely on jobs in the struggling construction and service industries. Those here illegally lack the cushion of unemployment benefits.
From Las Vegas to Jackson Hole, Wyo., many across the West are going home. Some set out in search of jobs in other states. Others hang on, relying on the kindness of friends and family, and hoping for better times ahead. “If not,” Novarro says, “I’m going back to El Salvador soon, because I can’t stay here without work – without anything.”
The number of returnees is likely to pick up as the recession deepens, says Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.
“They’re the most vulnerable group,” Papademetriou says. “They’re overrepresented, in some cases extremely overrepresented, in the industries that lost massive numbers of jobs and continue to lose jobs. … The ones that bled early and bled deep continue to bleed today. The same types of people that got hurt early continue to get hurt today.”
In a study released Tuesday, the Pew Hispanic Center found illegal immigrants were more likely to be unemployed than citizens or legal immigrants. Unemployment among illegal immigrants was 6.5 percent, compared to 5.6 percent for other groups. That’s a switch from four years ago, when illegal immigrants had the lowest unemployment rate of anyone.
The once-rapid pace of immigration has subsided, the report found, but illegal immigrants still make up one in 10 workers in Arizona and Nevada, over 4.5 percent of the workers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, and over 3 percent in Idaho. One in every five construction workers and service workers across the country are illegal immigrants. Those numbers are likely much higher in parts of the West where immigration has increased dramatically to satisfy the resort boom.
But those plentiful jobs have disappeared. Basalt, Colo., resident Jonathan Arranda counts 10 acquaintances who have headed south of the border, in some cases leaving behind homes and cars they can’t afford. “There’s very little work and more people looking for work,” he says.
Eduardo Arnal, Mexico’s consul general in Denver, whose office services Colorado and eastern Wyoming, says he’s hearing from more Mexican immigrants planning to return. The office used to get just a few requests each week for a procedure that allows Mexican citizens to take household goods home duty-free, he says. Those requests have jumped to one or two a day – a good indicator of interest in returning home.
“They have been really hit by the crisis,” Arnal says. “In some cases they decided to go to other states and Canada looking for opportunities, and sometimes they go back to Mexico.”
Some who stay behind move into tighter quarters to reduce expenses. “If two or three families live in one house, if one family has nothing, one helps the other,” says Antonio Torres, of Glenwood Springs, Colo.
For some, it’s a temporary measure until they can see if work will pick up in the spring, or if they should pack their bags and head home.
“Many of them are likely to be unemployed and in a downward spiral in terms of income and jobs for about a year now,” Papademetriou says. “I imagine some have reached the nadir – the lowest point – in terms of staying here and, really, barely surviving amid a possibly increasingly unfriendly climate.”