Editor's note: The migrant workers in this story are identified with pseudonyms because they are undocumented and are afraid of retribution or deportation.
Raul made the grueling journey from Guatemala to North Carolina in trains, cars, buses and on foot, but now that the local construction industry has slowed, he spends most of his time sitting still. He says he came to the United States to help his family put a younger sister through high school. Once she graduates, he says he wants to return to Guatemala and attend college with her.
On a rainy Friday morning, Raul sat at a table in a small apartment in Carrboro with his five roommates. The only decoration in the sparse kitchen was a tiny statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe sitting on the table. All six men are undocumented immigrants who work as day laborers, picking up jobs outside the BP station on Jones Ferry Road. Six months ago, they say, it would have been preposterous to think they would all be home on a weekday; they often worked Saturdays. But lately, jobs have been scarce.
Data on how the recession is impacting migrant workers—particularly those here illegally—is sketchy, but studies from the Pew Hispanic Center reported a national unemployment rate of 8 percent among Latinos last year, well above the national average at that time, with foreign-born Hispanics faring worse than their native-born counterparts.
Juan, a middle-aged engineer from the Mexican city of León, says he came to Carrboro in 2006 and found work just two days after his arrival. He could take his pick of jobs, choosing only the highest-paying contractors, homeowners and landscapers who stopped on Jones Ferry Road looking for workers. Now, such offers are becoming so rare, Juan says, he has seen fistfights break out over them.
Since November, the workers have grown accustomed to weeks without a single job. Unable to send money to their families, migrant workers are now desperate enough to frequent local food banks. Juan says some have resorted to fishing in public lakes for their dinner, with a little line wrapped around an empty soda can. Even this carries a risk: The workers can be fined if they're caught fishing without a license, but it's impossible to get a license without state-issued identification. Others, unable to pay for basic living expenses, have moved into the woods.
Manuel operates an informal restaurant from an apartment in the same neighborhood. He, his wife and their daughters serve crisp sopas and tacos de asada on handmade tortillas to migrant workers in their living room. A few months ago, their home-cooked meals were so popular, it was difficult to fit through the door at lunchtime.
On a recent Saturday morning, the rich aroma of slow-roasting pork lingered in the concrete corridor outside Manuel's restaurant, and a handwritten sign on the metal door announced the special, but Manuel and his family had no one to serve. Since the slowdown in housing construction, his customers haven't been able to afford to eat out, even for $2.50 quesadillas de puerco.
"I've had a 50 or more percent decline in business" since September, he says. "It's very drastic, very dramatic." He nods toward his grandson, who is watching Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium on television across the room. "If you were to ask my third-grade grandson, even he would know something has happened."
Locally, advocates working with the Latino community say the recession's impact on Hispanics has been disproportionately harsh. Marisol Silva, program director for El Centro Latino in Carrboro, says more people are asking the organization for help finding work.
"We have a waiting room packed, because we help them to find a job, help them fill out résumés, anything related to work," she says. El Centro, which has been in Carrboro for a decade, traditionally opened its office every Thursday to Hispanic job-seekers. A month ago, it extended its job assistance services to Tuesdays to meet the growing need.
At the same time, Silva says far fewer jobs are being advertised, and despair is forcing many migrants to consider returning home. "We have a lot of cases [where] they come trying to find money just to go back, because the situation here is so bad," she says.
Rafael Gallegos, a doctoral student in the UNC-Chapel Hill sociology department, works with migrant laborers through the Human Rights Center, an advocate for local Hispanics. Gallegos says since he started working with the migrant community in August 2008 he's seen the situation worsen significantly.
"When I first started, people were able to pay bills, rent was not a concern, and they were sending money home on a regular basis," he says. Now, "most of them are pretty much saying that they are going to leave. They say, 'At least I'll be with my family.'"
The Pew Hispanic Center studies also noted a steady decline in the number of Latinos entering the country illegally from 2005 to 2008, as work dried up. And the Wall Street Journal reported March 17 that many Latin American countries are seeing significant decreases in cash remittances from workers in the U.S.; Mexico, whose residents receive more money from family members working here than those of any Latin American country, reported a 12 percent decline in remittances in January 2009, compared to the same month a year earlier.
Sitting in his restaurant, Manuel says Latin Americans are not afraid of hardship.
"This is nothing they haven't encountered before," Manuel says. "Most Americans aren't accustomed to hunger, but it's nothing new" for many Hispanics. "But what's really scaring people is, there's no work."
Manuel says he's cautiously optimistic that President Barack Obama's economic agenda will improve the economy for everyone, including migrant workers. But a barrage of potential legislation—proposed in response to heightened competition between U.S. citizens and undocumented immigrants for a dwindling pool of jobs—may complicate matters. Republicans in the General Assembly have introduced legislation that would require contractors who receive federal stimulus money to check employees' documentation. Other bills being considered include one that would permit officials to take legal action against businesses that hire illegal workers and another that would allow schools to ask children their residency status.
Ramón, a middle-aged fisherman from Chiapas, in southern Mexico, lives with Raul and Juan in Carrboro. Ramón has lived in the area long enough to accumulate business contacts, and he enjoyed steady work in home renovation until the housing bust. He says he recently worked for someone for a month, expecting to be paid on the final day. Instead, he says his employer dropped him off one night and never came back, shorting Ramón $3,000.
"Being a migrant, things don't change for you," he says. "It might get better for everyone else, but not for us."