Jobs Or No Jobs, Immigrants Stay In Lee County

Jobs or no jobs, immigrants stay in Lee County

By Janine Zeitlin
The News-Press (Fort Myers, FL), August 2, 2009

The workday has begun. It's after 9 a.m. but the advancing hour does not deter the more than 50 Hispanic men waiting for jobs that do not come.

Near Tice Street and Ortiz Avenue, a newcomer from Virginia bakes in the sun, standing on a curb to catch the first glimpse of trucks that do not come.

The others, those who have been watching for months and thrived from day labor in construction boom times, sit in the shade. Only two men snag jobs this Thursday morning.

'Each day it gets worse,' says Arturo Barrientos, 58. 'I wouldn't feel good if I stopped trying.'

Many Hispanic immigrants are staying put in Lee County despite the plummet in growth-related jobs that lured them here and belief to the contrary. About 70 percent of the roughly 90,000 Lee residents who weren't born in the United States are from Latin America. Almost a quarter of the county's foreign-born population is from Mexico.

Some immigrants returned to their home countries in the face of immigration enforcement during the past two years. But many, particularly families with U.S.-born children, have stuck around.

They're eking through the recession in hopes the new administration will offer immigration relief.

'There's a lot of people that are just holding on,' said Tulio Suarez, a Fort Myers immigration attorney. 'The longer they've been here, the harder it is to leave because there's children involved and it becomes home.'

A recent Pew Hispanic Center report that studied the Mexican population found no evidence more Mexicans are returning to their native country, although the stream of immigrants from Mexico has tailed off sharply.

The report said an estimated 433,000 headed home from February 2008 to 2009. In the same time in 2007 to 2008, 440,000 went home; 479,000 returned the year prior.

Immigration from Mexico dropped at least 40 percent from mid-decade to last year, a plunge the report attributed to a drop in illegal immigrants as borders tightened while the flow of legal residents remained steady.

Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer who co-authored the report, said various factors are at work.

'The economy in Mexico is, if anything, worse than the U.S. So there's not a lot go back to.'

Local statistics are not available showing migration patterns, but organizations serving Latino immigrant neighborhoods have not noted a dropoff in need.

Susan Acuna, executive director at the Literacy Council of Bonita Springs, said she adds up to 38 new students each month. The agency served almost 1,800 students in the past year.

'We're not seeing any exodus out of town or out of the community,' she said. 'There's been quite a bit of growth.'

Nations Association Charities, based in east Fort Myers and home to a large Hispanic community, has counted about a 35 percent increase for its services in recent months.

Across from the organization's office, at Schandler Hall Community Park, senior parks supervisor Christine Bailey said the bilingual neighborhood lends Hispanic immigrants a comfort level.

'They're still here and they're still coming to the park,' she said. 'This area has gotten very comfortable for them.'

Family matters

Edison State College sociology professor Michael Andoscia was not surprised data showed Mexican immigrants are lingering. Along with economic options, immigrants seek social stability. Ethnic neighborhoods can offer familiarity minus the crime far from home.

'These enclaves also provide networks with Mexico so being away from Mexico doesn't mean being outside the network,' he said.

It's difficult for impoverished Mexicans to migrate legally so if they're here they may not want to shoulder the risk and expense of crossing illegally again, the professor said.

Zenaido Zantos, 23, of Oaxaca, Mexico, said he crossed a river in a car tire to come to the country.

'One suffers a great deal to come here,' said Zantos, who traded farm labor in Arcadia for better wages in Lee's construction industry three years ago.

Now he picks up a day or two a week in landscaping or cleaning. He estimates he can scrape by about another year here.

Immigrant workers who have settled into families with U.S.-born children may be more likely to stay.

'It's a bit of a different decision if you're having to move a whole family back,' Passel said.

The researcher said a stereotype exists about unauthorized immigrants being unattached single men. Center research showed only a quarter of illegal immigrants fit that bill.

Maria Villegas, 24, also from Oaxaca, has lived in Lee five years and has a 3-year-old son.

She'd like to remain for her son's future, although her husband who works laying bricks has had to ask cousins in Kentucky and Missouri for loans to cover the roughly $400 in rent and electricity bill.

'In my country, the children start working at a very young age,' Villegas said. 'I'd like him to get an education.'

Other mothers are grounding their households while husbands scout for work in other states.

Mothers struggling while their husbands are away have toted their children to the store, Botanica El Sol on Palm Beach Boulevard, to sell bracelets they made that dangle with trinkets with the face of Jesus. Leo Coronell, the 59-year-old mother of the store owner, buys a dozen for $10.

She can't deny them.

'I look at is as their art. They're trying to survive alone,' she said. 'It's not like they're here begging for charity. They're making an effort to survive.'

Isabel Gracida, mother of two, is searching for work. Lacking a work visa or ability to speak English makes it much harder to search for jobs.

'I've always worked,' she said. 'We're waiting to hear what the new president says.'

President Barack Obama has vowed to start tackling the immigration reform process that's been stalled since 2007.

According to the White House, the president believes in stronger borders and developing a system that will allow for legal immigration so families can stay together.

On Thursday, Barrientos, who was waiting for work along Ortiz Avenue, said he hasn't nailed a solid job for nine months. Employers have slashed wages from $10 to $5 an hour and reports of not being paid are more rampant, he said.

Still, he hasn't lost the incentive that drives his commute from Bonita to Fort Myers to scout for work: 'Hope keeps me coming.'

EDITORS NOTE: The Pew report is available online at: