Migrants get caught in the downturn
by James Militzer
From the August, 2009 issue
For undocumented immigrants, the recession is especially brutal.
"I'd say my income has gone down about 40 percent," says "Manuel," a dishwasher in a local restaurant. "There aren't many people going out to restaurants, so everything has fallen off a lot compared to what it was like before."
Manuel asked that his name not be used because he's in the United States illegally. So is his friend, "Pedro," an office cleaner. "I used to clean eleven buildings and send back $300 to my family in Mexico every two weeks," Pedro says. "But now I'm down to eight buildings, and I just send $80 or $100."
Olas Travel owner Charo Ledon estimates that half of her Spanish-speaking clients are undocumented. In a recession, she says, they "are the first to be let go, because their employers save on unemployment insurance, since undocumented immigrants do not file for unemployment benefits."
The recession has also brought competition into job markets that immigrants have long dominated. "Before, almost nobody went looking for cleaning jobs--just us Latinos," Pedro says. "But now even Americans want to do this work! So your bosses pressure you to work harder, because if you don't, there's someone else who wants to do your job."
Meanwhile, the government is cracking down on illegal aliens. In January 2008, Michigan began denying driver's licenses to people who can't prove legal U.S. residency. And in the spring of last year, there was a noticeable uptick in federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids. The arrests "have not slowed down with the Obama transition, as we had hoped," says Laura Sanders, co-coordinator of the Washtenaw County Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights. "In fact, they recently targeted a trailer park on Carpenter Road. We have now responded to forty-eight cases and counting" since the spring of last year.
Despite dwindling job opportunities and the stress of living illegally here, neither Manuel nor Pedro plans to leave the country. "You're not going to solve anything by going back," says Manuel. "There's no work there either."
[Originally published in August, 2009.]