American dream shrivels: As work dries up, immigrants are hit hard

Published: Friday, April 17 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Zulma, left, and her husband, Max, right, with their sons Diego and Max Jr., are facing the possibility of moving from Kamas back to Mexico.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

PARK CITY — Empty hotel rooms do not need cleaning.

Ivan Smith knows this much, so he worries. He's seen the toll the nation's economic woes have taken on the people who work in the hotels and kitchens, resorts and construction sites around this picturesque ski town.

The Panamanian immigrant sees the boxes of belongings and abandoned trucks outside the homes of undocumented immigrants who have left the area in search of work.

"In this town, everything is moving with the labor of Hispanics," Smith says.

Some of them go to Salt Lake and California — others are headed home to Mexico.

"Now it is the same" in the U.S. as in Mexico, a housekeeper named Gregoria says. At the hotel where she works "there's a lot of people gone," after her employer told them, "go and rest."

More than almost any other city in Utah, Park City has been hit hard by the sputtering economy. Taxable sales in January dropped more than $23 million compared to January 2008, according to a report released this week by the Salt Lake based Bonneville Research. Only Hurricane and Washington County saw a higher percentage decline, according to the report.

Smith, who spends his days helping other immigrants find jobs around the city, is concerned about what a prolonged recession will mean for his community.

Busted employment

Maximo, who asked to be identified by only his first name, has been a maintenance worker for a Park City property management company for the last three years. He fixes busted light switches and leaky faucets, and makes enough to buy his sons the PlayStation 3, which sits in the front room of their Kamas apartment.

Still, he wanted to make sure his family had passports — "to be ready if we have to leave," Maximo said.

Winter means skiers and tourists and more busted light switches and wobbly tables. As things warm up, already "more than the normal" number of workers have been let go, he said. Maximo has seen his own hours cut from 40 to 32 each week.

Some families have already returned to Mexico, he said. "A lot of people have houses. They can go back and be safe with their families."

Maximo has spent the last five years working in Utah, saving enough money to build a house near his parent's home in Estado de Mexico. But he doesn't want to leave.

Utah has been good to his family. He likes the churches and the schools. His children were born in Mexico, but they have grown up here. Diego, his youngest, wears a shirt with an American wrestler on it.

What if his work cut his hours even more? Could he return to Mexico?

"Muy dificil," he says. "There is nothing in Mexico. It's starting over. When I come here, I have nothing — only my pants and my shirt. I would start over again."

Maximo says half of these things in broken English and half through his son, Max Jr.

Is it hard to hear his father say these things?

No, the 9-year-old says. He is not afraid of returning to Mexico. He is a good student. He studies hard and knows how to read and write English and Spanish.

"I have to learn all these things — to be prepared," the child says.

In a small trailer on the outskirts of Kamas, Smith speaks in rapid-fire Spanish with a Peruvian man named Bernardo, who was given some bad tax advice recently.

The man worked in Idaho before he came here. He had a visa, but it has expired.

Bernardo works at the ranch because it easier for an undocumented immigrant to get a job working these long hours than in the city.

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