Broken dreams: The struggle of NYC working-class immigrants

(Credit: Urbanite)

By Emily Ngo

Working-class immigrants who arrived in New York City with big dreams are finding the recession is turning their lives into a nightmare.

Some observers say the problem has reached unprecedented proportions, with construction and other jobs that were the lifeblood of immigrants suddenly scarce.

“We haven’t, since our existence, seen as dire an economic situation,” said Chris Newman, legal director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which was formed in 2001. “More people looking for work on a given day. Fewer people looking for workers. There’s more competition for jobs.”

Some of the jobless are returning to their home countries. Others who are not already homeless are struggling to find shelter each night.

“They pay $50 to sleep on a little space,” said Colombian immigrant Jaime Romero, draping his coat on the floor to demonstrate the conditions.

Romero is out of work, but considers himself lucky because he still draws a disability check.

It’s $170 a week, hardly enough to support his wife, grandmother and young sons in Queens. So he finds himself turning to relatives back home.

“Family, relatives in Colombia are sending money for my rent and food,” said Romero, 53, who used to earn between $800 and $1,000 weekly as a parking attendant. “I should be sending them money.”0216LOC%28c%29IMMIG.jpg

(Marie Claire Andrea)

Perhaps the crisis is most vividly seen in the drop-off in work for day laborers. Until recently, day laborers such as those clustered along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens found plentiful jobs every day during the city’s building boom. But now, the men — their ranks thinning — anxiously wait for work that will not come, said Luis Alfonso, a construction worker who declined to give his last name. They can go two weeks without work, he said.

“No work, no money, no good,” said the Colombian native who cares for three daughters. “It’s big problems.”

In New York City, immigrants make up 37 percent of the population and contribute to 46 percent of the labor force, according to a 2007 report by the Fiscal Policy Institute. (The city’s undocumented workers make up 10 percent of the resident work force.) But experts say those numbers are falling as the joblessness rates rise.

Employed immigrants aren’t necessarily working in good conditions, said Wing Lam, executive director of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association. “The wages are going down. Jobs that pay more now pay less.”

Every sector in the Asian-American business community, from nail salons to restaurants, has been hurting since September, he said.

“People are having a difficult time. The government doesn’t care about the lower-wage end,” Lam said.

Newman’s day-laborer group plans to compile statistical evidence of the slump this summer, the prime time for construction work.

The New York Immigration Coalition, with Make the Road and other social service organizations, are lobbying for improved worker conditions. They also want President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan to carve out a role for immigrants in an economic recovery.

Ricarda Guzman, 35, a laundress who has been unable to find work for four months, said she has faith in her future in New York.

“It’s a bad economy now. It will be better in maybe a year,” said Guzman, a Mexican immigrant whose Spanish is translated by her 7-year-old son. “We have a different president. ‘Si, se puede.’ ”

Unfortunately, time is running out for many.

“My thinking was that I would come here, make money and go to college, and then go home,” said Romero, who said he must either find work despite knee and back injuries or return penniless to Colombia. “Now I just don’t know what to do.”

Tags: immigrants , queens , economy

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