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

Published: Monday, July 6 2015 12:20 p.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) 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."

Originally from Peru, Bernardo now works on a ranch in Kamas. He sends earnings to his family in Peru. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Originally from Peru, Bernardo now works on a ranch in Kamas. He sends earnings to his family in Peru. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

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.

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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