American Dreams Deferred—Recession Batters Immigrants At All Economic Levels

American dreams deferred
Recession batters immigrants at all economic levels

By Maria Sacchetti
The Boston Globe, March 24, 2009

In a Cambridge high-rise, Amar Sharma is about to earn a master's degree from MIT, an achievement he hoped would land him a high-flying post in the United States. But if he doesn't find a job soon, he could end up back in India.

A few miles away, Bedardo Sola is devastated by the loss of his janitorial job at Harvard. The layoff plunges two households into jeopardy: his family here, and the daughter he supports in El Salvador.

Soaring unemployment is hammering families across the United States, and it is having a particular impact on immigrants and their relatives thousands of miles away. In addition to their livelihoods, foreign-born workers could lose their work permits, and their hope for a future in the United States. Even naturalized US citizens are affected because they lose the source of the money transfers they send to relatives back home.

But as unemployment rises, so does friction over immigration, with lawmakers and others calling for increased restrictions on foreign workers to preserve Americans' jobs, while advocates warn that immigrants will be crucial to any economic recovery. In Massachusetts, immigrants comprise 17 percent of the workforce, nearly double the share in 1980.

There is no single measure to determine how immigrants are faring in the recession. Most immigrants are in a vulnerable demographic, concentrated at the high and low ends of the economy, in the battered construction and hospitality industries, as well as in finance and high tech. Those most at risk are often poor, less educated, and not fluent in English.

Analysts say several signs point to a dramatic nationwide slowdown: Illegal immigration has not increased significantly since 2006; money transfers to Latin America dropped late last year for the first time in nearly a decade; and unemployment for Latino immigrants soared from 5 percent to 8 percent last year, according to the Migration Policy Institute, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Pew Hispanic Center, all based in Washington.

'[Immigrants are] faring the same, and probably, in many cases, worse than the rest of us, especially if they're working in the underground economy,' said George Noel, director of the Massachusetts Department of Labor, who is conducting an inquiry into the state's low-wage workforce.

Affecting the high end of the economic spectrum, Congress just banned companies that receive federal bailout money from replacing laid-off American workers with skilled foreign workers, called H-1B's for the name of their visa program. The program issues up to 85,000 visas a year starting April 1 but came under fire recently when some companies cutting jobs applied for foreign workers.

Some voices are clamoring for more federal restrictions on immigration to preserve jobs at the low end of the economy. According to a study late last year, immigrants without a high-school diploma had lower unemployment rates than native-born Americans, particularly blacks and Latinos. Eleven percent of such immigrants were unemployed compared with 25 percent of blacks and 16 percent of US-born Latinos.

'We should not entertain any increases in immigration,' said Steven Camarota, director of research for the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which conducted the study. 'It doesn't make sense to keep adding to the population that's getting clobbered.'

Still, analysts say that so far, the public debate appears focused on corporate scandals and the use of federal bailout money, and not on immigrants.

'The big target is what has been happening on Wall Street and the banking sector,' said Demetrios G. Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute. 'So far it's the greed.'

Across Massachusetts, unions, immigration lawyers, and advocates are mobilizing to protect workers' rights, holding rallies, and even referring workers to counseling for depression and stress. Some workers, such as H-1B's, face having to leave the country if they lose their jobs. Others have permission to stay, but they might still be under intense pressure to send money home. Illegal immigrants – about one in five immigrants in Massachusetts – are facing criticism for taking jobs.

At the SEIU Local 615 union hall in Downtown Crossing last week, Sola held his head in his hands after he was laid off from his janitorial job cleaning a Harvard dormitory. Sola, who is here legally, said he sends hundreds of dollars a month home to a 10-year-old daughter with an autoimmune disorder.

'I didn't come to this country to be a dependent,' said Sola, 42. 'I want to work.'

Union workers are fighting the layoff, saying it occurred without regard to seniority. And they are criticizing Harvard for the cost-cutting that led to the layoffs of workers who take some of the hardest jobs.

Kevin Galvin, a Harvard spokesman, said the university is facing 'unprecedented fiscal challenges' and is cutting in many areas, including imposing a salary freeze on faculty and nonunion staff. Galvin said a subcontractor is carrying out the layoffs, not Harvard. The subcontractor did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, professionals such as Sharma are scouring career centers, networking at coffee shops and cocktail parties, and appealing to college alumni for help.

Sharma is about to earn a master's degree in engineering and management from MIT, after working for several years for IBM in Kansas and in his native India. At 30, he helps support his mother, a government clerk, and a younger brother.

But he hasn't had a job interview since January. He wants to be an information technology strategist, but if he doesn't find work in the next few months he will probably have to take a lower-paying job in India to pay off $80,000 in loans.

'I never thought things were going to go bad,' he said. 'I thought the moment I graduated everything would be all right.'

Laila Shabir, a 22-year-old MIT undergraduate who came here from the United Arab Emirates, said the recession is so bad that she decided to delay graduation to keep job-hunting.

'I go to MIT and study economics and I have a great rsum,' said Shabir, the daughter of a plumber and a housewife. 'Why am I having such a hard time finding a job?'

Others are worried that a backlash against foreign workers could hurt the United States' recovery. A year ago, the Canadian province of Alberta launched a program to attract workers in the United States on H-1B visas.

Since April, more than 2,000 people have applied, including 65 from Massachusetts, drawn by the easier immigration system and the 'open spaces' and 'blue skies' that Alberta touts (promotions leave out the subzero temperatures). More than 300 have been nominated to come to Canada so far.

'If H-1B workers are qualified . . . then we'd like to have them,' said Rhonda From, director of the program in Alberta. 'We don't mean to steal them.'

George Bruno, an immigration lawyer in New Hampshire, says the program is 'draining our brainpower.'

'At some point our economy is going to bounce back,' he said. 'And when it does, who's going to be better positioned, Canada or the United States?'


Hours cut, jobs dry up for Morris immigrants
By Minhaj Hassan
The Daily Record (Morristown, NJ), March 23, 2009

Santos Martinez lost a painting job in December and has had trouble finding work since then.

'It's hard,' said Martinez, a 51-year-old Honduran immigrant. 'There is nothing out there.'

Martinez, who lives with his two sons and two brothers in an apartment on Speedwell Avenue, said they are barely making ends meet and might have to leave the country although they do not want to leave Morristown.

'It's a good town,' he said. 'All the things you need are right here — park, stores.'

The national recession has trickled through all layers of society and is hitting recent immigrants hard. There does not seem to be any indication yet that the economic difficulties are causing any type of exodus, but many recent immigrants say they are having a particularly difficult time of late as construction and restaurant jobs dry up.

In Morristown, approximately 70 people still stand on Morris Street in the early morning hours seeking to land a job for the day, while a similar number do the same thing in Dover, near the train tracks on Dickerson Street.

Morristown Police Chief Peter Demnitz and Dover Police Capt. Edward Kerwick both said they haven't seen any noticeable decline in the number of people congregating in their respective towns each morning.

Mayor Donald Cresitello, however, said he has seen more people gathering each morning.

'I have seen an increase in the number of people congregating, but I don't see any hiring taking place,' Cresitello said.

He added that he's seen some people who appear to be very young.

'I wonder if they should be in high school (instead of working),' he said, adding that he's heard stories about people wanting to leave but couldn't because of the difficulty and cost of heading back to their homeland.

Jesus Castillo, 34, worked at a small restaurant in Parsippany, but it shut down about two months. He said he's still looking for a new job.

'I need work,' said Castillo, who lives with five other people on Speedwell Avenue and is originally from Colombia.

Jose Rodriguez, 29, and originally from Honduras, said he's had little consistent work of late. He had a painting job two weeks ago but nothing last week.

'I didn't find anything,' he said, standing by the Century 21 department store Thursday afternoon.

Standing near the Dunkin' Donuts in Morristown, 33-year-old Elmer Fernandez said he's hoping that once the weather gets warmer, more landscaping jobs will become available.

As less money comes in, household budgets become tighter and it becomes more difficult to pay for some services.

Zoila Gonzalez, a director of operations at Neighborhood House, said some parents, many of whom are immigrants, had to pull their children out of the after-school programs there because they can't afford to make the payments.

Neighborhood House charges a sliding scale fee, based on income, but even those fees tend to be steep for some families, she said.

'Many parents saw their hours cut,' she said. 'They either had to pull them out (of the program), or they fell behind on the payments.'

Many of the parents work as house cleaners, landscapers and factory workers, or in hotels, she said.

'Many of them can barely afford to pay the rent or put food on the table,' she said.

Gonzalez said the trend started in the fall; there are 121 kids currently enrolled but that's down from 146 over the summer.

The center provides young children with a safe place to engage in after-school activities or receive tutoring on academic subjects, Gonzalez said.

Picking up his 7-year-old daughter at Neighborhood House on Thursday, East Hanover resident Eddie Gonzalez said he's starting to feel the pinch.

A caterer, the 34-year-old Gonzalez said his corporate clients aren't having as many office parties as they once did. He said the downturn had been difficult and paying for things like the Neighborhood House after-school program feels harder than before.

'You start to feel a difference,' he said, adding that he's determined to keep his daughter in the program because it's a valuable place for young kids.

'This place needs to be helped by the community and the government,' said Gonzalez, who is working on becoming an American citizen. 'They are doing a great job.'

Wind of the Spirit, an immigrant resource agency, said their clients generally do works such as housekeeping and landscaping and they are noticing a difference.

'Hiring has gone down a lot,' said Vriel Mejia, an office manager.

Shai Goldstein of the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network in Newark said recent immigrants are hit hard by the recession but they can also be key to the recovery.

'Recessions tend to have a huge impact on low- and moderate-income earners,' he said. 'Our economic recovery will depend on a large part by the small businesses that will be created. Many of those businesses are created by immigrants.'