August 24, 2003
Illegal immigrants feel pain of tightening U.S. job market
But pipeline flows on, challenging communities unaccustomed to influx of foreigners
By JERRY KAMMER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
COLUMBUS, Ind. – For more than a decade, Gerardo moved seamlessly from painting houses in North Carolina to welding truck trailers or assembling auto parts in Indiana. But when he returned to Columbus in March after a visit to his Mexican birthplace, he ran smack into the wall of a suddenly hostile job market.
"When I was looking for a job last year, four or five places called me back," he said. "Now it's totally different. There's not enough work and too many people looking."
The plight of Gerardo – identified only by his first name because he is in the country illegally – is spreading among an illegal-immigrant community that had grown accustomed to boom days in the U.S. job market.
As more industries across America shifted to a mixed legal and illegal foreign work force over the past decade, immigration networks north and south of the border spread like dandelions, taking advantage of employers' desires for cheap labor and the government's lax enforcement of immigration law in the workplace.
Workers now routinely travel from every part of Mexico to every part of the United States – a major shift from the traditional migration from a few farm regions in Mexico to a few farm regions north of the border.
For years, jobs were plentiful. Then came the moment many had feared: The 1990s jobs spurt stalled.
In the past 21/2 years, the U.S. economy has lost 3 million private-sector jobs and unemployment has risen to 6.1 percent. In Indiana alone, 122,600 jobs disappeared.
Yet the legal-and illegal-immigrant pipeline keeps pumping into communities across America, presenting challenges for towns unaccustomed to large-scale immigration and a country that has no guidebook for dealing with the cultural, social and economic changes wrought by these shifts in demographics.
'Could be problems'
Columbus, Ind., where diesel engine, fork lift, auto parts and furniture factories rise from vast landscapes of corn and soybeans, is one of those changed communities.
Juana Watson knows enough U.S. immigration history to be concerned about the Mexican immigrants who have surged there since 1998, moving along immigration networks that spread job news like a vast switchboard connecting Mexican communities on both sides of the border.
Now Mexican immigrants are about 10 percent of Columbus' population of 38,000.
"When there is work and the economy is good, everything's OK," said Watson, 47, the wife of an engineer and a longtime Columbus resident who helps the newcomers adjust to Indiana laws and mores.
"When the jobs go away, the people get angry," she said. "There is a lot of unemployment now. There could be problems."
There are problems for many of the recent newcomers. In June, as Watson ran an errand to Wal-Mart, she faced the mounting desperation in seeing jobs disappear while immigrants keep coming.
"People were following me all over," she said. "They were looking for jobs, for houses, for help with somebody who was sick. I almost started running away from them."
Mayor Fred Armstrong, an amiable former police officer who welcomed the Mexican newcomers after some initial doubts, said the economic downturn suggests there is a limit to the number of immigrants his town can accept.
"If unemployment gets any worse, you may have people say, 'OK, we have to get them out of town now because they're taking our jobs,' " Armstrong said at his office in the triangular brick edifice of City Hall. "I don't think anybody's dying over work in hotels and restaurants, but the factories may be an issue at some point."
At Kramer's Kitchen downtown, where $4.75 buys meatloaf and two side orders, waitress Leslie Yoder says that point has been reached.
"I say send them all back. They're taking our jobs," Yoder said. "They live 25 people in a house and they send their money back to Mexico, and they're taking money out of our community."
Armstrong said that in the late 1990s, when Mexicans began arriving in large numbers, the unemployment rate was below 2 percent and "businesses around here were begging for workers."
Those who come illegally use bogus documents to get restaurant, factory, hotel or construction jobs that offer low wages and no insurance.
They crowd into apartments and rental houses, sharing expenses so they can send money home. Some drive illegally; they have been unable to get driver licenses since the state tightened its rules after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Many rely on the emergency room for basic medical care, generally leaving behind unpaid bills. Often, they compete with each other for day labor arranged by temporary-work agencies that pay less than $7 an hour.
Although employers praise the immigrants' hard work, the status of the new arrivals in Columbus is tentative and unsettled. The city motto, inspired by the civic architecture that has seeded the town with boldly designed schools and other buildings, is "Different by Design." But there is little design in the way the struggling immigrants fit into the city's civic life.
A shopper at the El Pueblo market, stocked with Mexican spices, cheeses and prepaid telephone cards, said she lost her job at a plastics factory because the Social Security Administration informed her bosses that her name didn't match the Social Security number she had reported.
"They let 15 of us go just on my shift," she said.
Police Chief Matthew McCord said most townspeople now accept the Mexican workers. But he also recalled the initial anxiety of many Columbus natives when they saw young men walking the street in groups of six and eight. Some residents thought, incorrectly, that gangs were on the prowl. They demanded action.
"We thought of getting the INS to come and get them," said McCord, referring to the federal immigration agency now known as the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "But we met with them and found out they didn't have the inclination or the capacity to handle the situation."
Armstrong added, "The INS said, 'If you've got a guy who's murdering people, we want to know about it; otherwise we're not going to deal with it.' "
Immigration and Customs bureau spokeswoman Marilu Cabrera in Chicago said the agency decided in the mid-1990s to back off work-site raids.
"The companies would just go out and hire another set of illegal aliens, so it wasn't an effective way of using our resources," Cabrera said.
After learning that the federal government would not help, McCord said, town officials took note of a confrontation that gripped the central Indiana town of Frankfort in 1998.
There, local officials clamped down on illegal immigrants after the fatal stabbing of a local man. Tensions became so severe that the Department of Justice sent in a community-relations squad to calm things down.
"There were plenty of poster children for the wrong way to do things," McCord said. "We wanted to avoid that."
Armstrong said advice from Watson, the immigrant advocate who was emerging as a community leader, helped shape his thinking.
"She said, 'You can accept them or reject them, and if you reject them you'll have a worse time,' " Armstrong recalled. "We're certainly going to accept them."
The irony of Gerardo's unemployment predicament is that he helped create the immigration influx to Indiana in the mid-1990s when he arrived in Lafayette, about two hours northwest of Columbus, and found work welding truck trailers.
When he saw jobs were plentiful, he sent word home to Veracruz, which until then rarely sent people to the United States. Before long, other Veracruzanos were streaming north from the hardscrabble farming settlements around Palma Sola, near the Gulf of Mexico.
"He brought his relatives and friends here," Watson said. "He brought whole villages."
Three years ago, as the job situation in Lafayette tightened, Gerardo moved to Columbus.
During the 1990s, the Clinton administration substantially bolstered enforcement at the border. But Congress and the White House allowed laws against the deliberate hiring of illegal workers to go unenforced. Employers across the country signed up the newcomers, who took low pay, asked few questions and hesitated to demand fair treatment because they had entered the country illegally. The hiring of illegal workers became a multibillion-dollar black market.
The result for those workers was greater difficulty crossing the border, but more incentive to make the effort. Consequently, the estimated illegal-immigrant population rose from 3 million to 8 million or 9 million during the past decade.
Until the 1990s, Mexican immigrants had originated primarily in farming villages in the central Mexican states of Jalisco, Michoacan, Zacatecas and Guanajuato.
The overwhelming majority went to the western United States – to California farm fields in particular – although a pipeline to Chicago had also been active for a century.
A 1986 amnesty made it easier for formerly illegal immigrants to move around the country and obtain residency visas for relatives. As the immigration networks expanded, Mexican states such as Veracruz, with little history of emigration, experienced a mass exit.
Now, 96 percent of Mexico's 2,350 county-sized municipios send immigrants to the United States, according to a Mexican government report. The exodus is the churning human equivalent of a downpour that suddenly floods a river with the flow of a hundred new streams.
The Mexican pattern has its mirror image in the United States, where demographer Jeffrey Passel used data from the 2000 census to plot 22 "immigration growth states" where immigration had spread. Indiana is one of them.
Census figures show that from 1990 to 2000 Indiana's immigrant population grew 98 percent, with more than half coming from Mexico. The state's population of Mexican immigrants jumped by more than 700 percent, from 7,500 to 61,000, according to a census analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that advocates limiting immigration.
$2,500 a child
At the edge of a trailer court squeezed between State Road 11 and a railroad track at the western edge of town, a 29-year-old woman explained why she came two months ago from the Mexican state of Tlaxcala. The only work there is farm work, she said.
"You earn very little, and everything is so expensive," she said.
So with money provided by her husband, who was established in Columbus, she went to the border town of Agua Prieta with her four children.
She walked through the desert into Arizona. Relatives paid to have her children taken through the port of entry by smugglers who presented them as their own. The going rate to have a child smuggled to Indiana is $2,500, according to a couple from the state of Tabasco who are saving to bring their child.
The woman from Tlaxcala has found work in a restaurant, bringing another income to a trailer crowded with her extended family.
So they keep coming, pushed by Mexican poverty, pulled by American opportunity and undaunted by tighter borders and an economic downturn.
In Mexico, the immigrants have become financial pillars and cultural heroes. The $10 billion they send home each year is Mexico's second largest source of foreign currency, behind only oil and ahead of the country's vast tourism industry. The money sustains regions where there's little or no economic growth and helps maintain political stability.
"What would happen in Mexico if we didn't have these remittances?" Puebla state Gov. Melquiades Morales asked in an interview in May. "There certainly would be a social explosion."
Worse back home
In late June, three months after his return to Columbus from Veracruz, Gerardo was still jobless and becoming desperate. He's thinking about moving to Evansville, Ind., 180 miles away.
"I've heard there's work in Evansville, and a lot of Mexicans, too," he said.
Gerardo's sister Carmen, a 32-year-old single mother of two, has a job, but it pays just $8 an hour, and she spends $4 an hour for her sons' day care.
No matter how tough things get, Carmen said, she'll stay in the United States for the sake of her children. Both were born in Lafayette, their deliveries paid for by Medicaid.
"I have to think of their future," she said. "I have to think about what is best for them, where they can have a chance for a decent life, with food to eat and shoes on their feet. . . . I think our future is here."
Added Gerardo, "There are economic problems here, but in our country it is much worse."