Immigrants' Jobs Vanish With Housing Slowdown

Julián Cabrera, 42, who arrived in the area from El Salvador in 2004, says that a year ago he was getting hired three times a week, but as of mid-December he hadn't worked in 15 days.
Julián Cabrera, 42, who arrived in the area from El Salvador in 2004, says that a year ago he was getting hired three times a week, but as of mid-December he hadn't worked in 15 days. (Photos By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The gold rush came in drywall, laminate flooring and granite countertops, and Amilcar Guzman came with it.

Guzman left El Salvador at age 18 in 1999 and landed in Manassas. Soon he had $15-an-hour jobs cutting lumber, driving nails and running a Bobcat loader. He got a car, got married. The Washington region was hungry for houses, houses, houses, and word of the boom reached Mexico and Central America, drawing thousands more eager, jobless men like him.

Then sometime last year, Guzman said, the rush began to go bust, little by little, month by month. The contractors stopped hiring. The phone stopped ringing. Washington, it seemed, had all the houses it could hold .

So Guzman got a plane ticket. On Jan. 20, he is taking his family back to El Salvador, with plans to open an auto repair shop with the money he has saved. "There's no work here anymore," he said, having spent the past month unemployed. "And when there's no work, it's time for Latinos to go back to the countries where they came from."

Hispanic immigration to the Washington region has always followed a seasonal pattern, as the winter puts a chill on outdoor labor and drives workers south. But with home sales and housing starts dropping after years of steady growth, many Hispanic workers -- legal and illegal -- say the good times are gone.

"The Hispanic population in Virginia has grown too much," said Guzman, echoing the sentiments of those who support tough immigration policies, "and that's closed off a lot of job opportunities."

Demographers who track migration patterns and embassy staff members say it's too soon to tell exactly how the housing construction decline has affected the region's Hispanic population. But stories of departing workers abound. Some workers say they're headed home; others, spurred by rumors of construction jobs, try their fortunes in the Carolinas, Georgia, New Orleans.

"It's a little better here, but not much," said Raul Amayas, 21, a Salvadoran immigrant reached by phone in Charlotte. Amayas left Manassas last month after losing his $400-a-week landscaping job. Now he's making $300 a week as a busboy at a Mexican restaurant. "It's hard here. Ugly," Amayas said.

Other immigrant workers said they're optimistic things will pick up again.

Julian Cabrera, 42, arrived in Woodbridge in 2004, a sharecropper from El Salvador who could no longer feed his nine children on the $5 a day he earned growing corn and beans. He has been snagging work at Route 1 and Longview Drive ever since. A year ago, he would get hired at least three times a week. But he hasn't found work once this month and is thinking of going to Texas, where his brother-in-law might be able to get him a job with a contractor. Until then, he's not sending money home to his family in El Salvador.

"I call my wife every eight days," he said, eyeing passing cars for potential employers. "I just tell her to be patient."

According to the National Association of Realtors, housing starts have fallen 23.5 percent between October 2004 and October 2006, and data released this month by the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors show home sales in that area plunged 45 percent between November 2004 and November 2006. Home sales in suburban Maryland are down 34 percent between November 2004 and November 2006, according to the Maryland Association of Realtors.

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