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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)

The effects of the slowdown are also rippling through Hispanic-owned businesses. "A lot of my customers have gone to Florida, to the Carolinas," said Carlos Castro, owner of the Todos Supermarket chain and chairman of the Hispanic Business Council in Prince William County.

Sales are down slightly at Castro's stores, but he said some of his suppliers are experiencing 30 to 40 percent decreases in local orders, with smaller, less-established businesses taking the biggest hit.

Tracking the departure of immigrants from the Washington area is difficult. "In terms of actual data, it's too soon to say," said Steven A. Camarota, research director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports limiting immigration. "If the economy turns down and we were to ratchet up enforcement, there would be a multiplier effect. But that isn't likely to happen. The most likely scenario is movement into other sectors of the economy and greater geographic dispersion."

Among illegal immigrant Hispanic men in the region, as many as one in three work in construction, Camarota said. No other U.S. industry employs more illegal immigrants, he said.

"A slowdown in the construction industry hits illegals much harder than the rest of the general population," Camarota said.

Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA of Maryland, said he's concerned that tensions over immigration will spread and intensify if large numbers of idle construction workers are not quickly absorbed by other services and industries. "We've seen workers leaving for other states for jobs in construction or agriculture," he said.

Torres argued for the need for job training programs to help workers make the transition into other sectors, saying he feared that "confrontation will accelerate further" if the slowdown worsens.

"That's one of the dangers of importing lots of workers," said Ira Mehlmen, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks to curb illegal immigration. "After their services are no longer required, you end up with them and with their families. "There isn't much reason for them to return home when services and other benefits are available."

But for many, and single men in particular, home has a powerful pull nonetheless. Aurelio Cruz has a wife and four children back in Puebla, Mexico, and every day that he's apart from them and doesn't find work "is a day of my life that I've wasted," he said.

The month of December has been lost to Cruz; he hasn't been hired once. "It's a bad situation," he said. He was thinking of going home this month, but weeks of standing along Route 1 in Woodbridge waiting futilely for work have postponed his plans.

"I came here to take care of my family," he said. "I can't go home with nothing. I can't go home the way I came."


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