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

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

He makes $1,400 a month and is given a trailer on the rancher's property. His home is austere; nothing hangs on the walls except for a small picture of Jesus Christ that has been jammed into the molding by the door. He makes enough for food, but sends the rest home to his wife and three children in Peru. He cannot afford to bring them here, he says.

The ranch owner has said he might be looking for a new group of workers, and recently told Bernardo to starting looking for a construction job.

"I'm in the hands of the owner," he says.

Race to the bottom

"That's not my concern," Eli Cawley, of the Utah Minutemen Project, says. "I don't care about them because they don't care about me."

Cawley, who calls the state a "sanctuary" for undocumented workers, says the country's economic struggles could force some immigrants to return home. More likely, he says, the recession will kick start a "race to the bottom" where illegal aliens replace legal workers more often.

"There's a permanent call to action," he says. "But it only happens when people actually hit the bottom and see the illegal alien going off to work."

The leader of a prominent Utah conservative think tank disagrees.

"If the Hispanic community was a threat to the jobs of middle income white people, they would have already been a threat prior to the recession," says Sutherland Institute President Paul Mero, who has argued for greater compassion for undocumented immigrants.

"When times are down, the last thing you want is for people to disappear under the radar," Mero says. "They're still in your neighborhood, but now they're even further underground."

While some immigrants may be looking to return to Mexico, the vast majority are staying put for now, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C.

"The reality is that the immigrants that live here aren't going anywhere," Mero said. "Do you want to encourage them to come to the surface of society and be productive and help the economy? Or do you want to continue to marginalize them and not let them be a part of any economic recovery?"

Working hands, without work

"There is no construction," the 58-year-old Primitivo says.

His dark hands used to belong to a welder. That's how he lived in Mexico. Then, for 15 years, they belonged to a construction worker in Park City.

Now, Primitivo's hands slowly rub across the salt and pepper stubble on his chin.

He has been without work for five months. One more and they will leave, he says.

His daughter and daughter-in-law have been left to support a family of eight, but they cannot afford to do it any longer.

Primitivo waits for better weather; he has heard of a few landscaping jobs.

A man named Francisco, who lives nearby, has also been looking for work. It has been two months, and the line is getting longer at the food pantry, he says.

Still, he says it is not an easy decision to return to Mexico.

"You don't have nothing here and you don't have nothing in Mexico," he says. "But if you go back to Mexico, you never come back here again."

E-MAIL: afalk@desnews.com

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