Illegal immigration may be solved not by a legislative compromise in Washington but by an economic downturn in America.
That, at least, is the message from day laborers in New York City, where immigrants interviewed recently by The New York Sun said work has so slowed that they are planning to return home to Latin America — if they can save enough cash for the trip home.
The city's expected economic downturn and the slowdown in construction in the boroughs other than Manhattan is trickling down to the city street corners where immigrant day laborers vie for work and wages to support themselves and send to their families back home.
More than a dozen immigrant day laborers interviewed by the Sun say work has sputtered to a near halt in the past few months, and that making ends meet is becoming a more difficult task. As jobs have dried up, the average daily wage has dropped to about $60 from about $120.
On one corner of Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, the past five days have seen a certain degree of camaraderie and dropping temperatures, but few jobs. Three day laborers, Luis Alberto, 51, Luis Perez, 50, and Enrique Ortiz, 54, considered their plight and shielded themselves from desperation with humor.
"These past months have been really hard. People rent rooms and many are not able to make rent and they are sleeping in the street. And now the cold is coming," Mr. Ortiz, who is from Mexico, said.
"There are many people just standing here, unable to find work. We can't even get enough for food sometimes. Sometimes we go hungry," Mr. Perez, an Ecuadorian, said adding that the days when he used to send $200 a week back home to his four children are long gone. "Construction is no good anymore. Sometimes I just work one day a week. I used to work all week."
While home prices are on the rise in wealthy areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn, permits for new buildings citywide have nearly dropped by half from highs in 2004, according to recent data from the city's department of buildings. Total permits issued by the department are also down.
While trying to make light of his situation, Mr. Alberto, who also has family in Ecuador, asked, "What American dream? What I have is insomnia," he laughs.
"Yes, an American nightmare," Mr. Ortiz chimed in.
Many of the immigrant day laborers came to the New York area to earn money and send it back to their native countries — transfers known as remittances. Now, many say they can no longer afford the transfers and some are reporting hunger and bouts of homelessness.
Some immigrants interviewed by the Sun said they would return to their homeland as soon as they earned enough money for a one-way plane fare.
Mr. Perez, who has been in the country for 12 years, is thinking about returning to Ecuador.
"Many have left already and others are leaving in December," he said about the workers who line up on Roosevelt Avenue. "I want to leave too. I want to make enough for the fare and leave."
Workers are reporting a stiff drop in salaries. Messrs. Alberto, Perez, and Ortiz, along with others interviewed, said they used to make between $100 and $120 a day. Now they are being offered — and usually take — between $50 and $60.
Workers and advocates said competition, a climate of uncertainty about the local economy, and increasing fear of immigration authorities after recent raids are being exploited by employers to drive salaries down. Advocates said there the present situation is more dire than it has been in years.
"There is always a slowdown after the summer, but usually we wouldn't see the workers during the summer because demand was so busy that they would disappear completely from the streets," an organizer with the Workers United Committee, a Queens nonprofit that advocates for immigrants, Julissa Bisono, said. "But this summer we didn't see that. Workers were unemployed for days at a time, something we hadn't seen before."
"In the past six months things have gotten even harder," the executive director of the Latin American Workers Project, a Brooklyn nonprofit, Oscar Paredes, said. His organization runs the only organized day laborer hiring site in the city.
"It's not only the economic aspect that affects their employment. There is an atmosphere of terror of immigration authorities that allows contractors to exploit these workers," he added.
Mr. Paredes said desperation has caused some workers in the demolition trade to accept work for $30 a day.
The increased hardship the economic slowdown has brought on day laborers also has social costs, as many turn to alcohol for solace and charitable and public institutions for lodging and food, advocates said.
"These are the workers on the frontlines, the first to feel the impact of any downturn in the industry. We see it in economic terms, but it has a human cost," an organizer of day laborers in Long Island, Omar Henriquez, said. "These workers have no income and no recourse, no safety net to fall on. No unemployment to collect."
Despite the glum outlook, fresh faces continue to turn up on street corners daily.
"I haven't worked in two weeks, not even a day," a 20-year-old day laborer from Mexico, Ronald Rodríguez said. He arrived in the city several months ago and has been homeless.
Why did he come here?
"To try to get ahead, like everybody who comes here. Not just to try to survive and pay rent."
Still, Mr. Rodríguez, for one, said he prefers prospects in New York to Mexico. "It is poorer there than here. What are we going to do there, if the country is more broke than here?"