House of Cards

Jobs in the construction industry, on which many Latin American immigrants and their families depend, are growing scarce. (Photo: Jelena Kopanja)

Wearing a hat emblazoned with a bald eagle and an American flag, Gerardo waited with some 30 other men in front of a 7-Eleven in Alexandria, Va., hoping a builder or contractor would come by to offer a job. The Sunday morning cold was a minor inconvenience. Lack of papers and, more recently, lack of work, were bigger worries.

Sometimes they'll wait for days without job offers, said Gerardo, 32, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who asked that his last name not be published.

And while construction work pays best, it is increasingly scarce.

"We are now getting more jobs in painting and moving," he said.

The end of the housing boom has signaled a bust in construction jobs, a field in which about 28 percent of workers are foreign-born, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Since some of these wages are sent back home to support families, already the effects are being felt abroad, especially in Latin America, whose nationals are heavily represented in construction. Latin America and the Caribbean received $60 billion in remittances from nationals abroad in 2007, according to World Bank statistics.

Gerardo, for example, stills sends his parents money regularly, even though he hasn't seen his parents in 10 years.

But payments like his are already starting to slow. Remittance growth to Latin America, which had doubled since 2002, grew just 6 percent in 2007, according to World Bank figures.

Executives at a Queens money transfer firm have seen the same thing on the ground. They estimate that transfers have dropped 40 percent.

"Because of the problems in construction, our clients are sending less money," said Linda Delgado, vice president of Delgado Travel in Queens, N.Y. At the beginning of 2007, the typical transfer payment was about $250, Delgado said. By early 2008, the average amounts had decreased to between $180 and $200.

"We are also seeing more small transactions—$20, $30, $60," she said. "People are sending what they can." Delgado transactions analyst Mariuxi Pazmino estimated that the agency had seen a 40 percent drop in transfers.

"People will not be able to send as much," agreed area resident Abelardo Mendoza.

Since remittances now outstrip foreign development aid, they're also seen as a potent anti-poverty tool.

"Just in 2006, there were about 1.5 billion individual transactions, amounting to over $300 billion," sent by the estimated 150 million migrants worldwide, said New York University Immigration Studies co-director Marcelo Suarez-Orozco.

Two thirds of new United States construction jobs in 2006 went to Latino workers—typically foreign-born and recently arrived, according to Pew Hispanic Center data.

Delgado said that some members of the Ecuadorian community she serves return to Ecuador for months at a time. While some invest in building houses there, in most cases the remittances are used for everyday survival, she said. Right now, for example, some funds are going to support families whose homes were destroyed by major floods.

Mexico's Guanajuato state, which supplies workers to much of Southern California's construction industry, could be one of the hardest-hit areas, said Luis Guarnizo, an immigration specialist at the University of California, Davis. "With Mexico, we've already seen a slowing down of growth" in remittances, Guarnizo said. "Maybe for the first time in many decades, we'll be seeing no growth or even negative growth."

"Immigrants are hypersensitive to economic fluctuations," Suarez-Orozco pointed out. The downturn may also slow immigrant arrivals. "People may be calling back their relatives and saying don't come—there are no jobs," he said.

The state of the economy is also a good indicator of how the United States public views immigration, he added. Historically, fewer jobs has often meant less tolerance.

A downturn may increase competition for jobs, leading to higher tensions based on ethnic and country ties, suggested Darrick Hamilton, coauthor of a study about African Americans in New York City's construction industry. "Both Latino and black immigrant workers receive lower-than-average wages in comparison to white immigrants," he said. "In the economic downturn scenarios, my suspicion is that most vulnerable groups will suffer the most."

From NYU Livewire.

Jelena Kopanja was born in Banja Luka, Bosnia, the source of her love of good coffee and baklava. She speaks Spanish, and is pursuing a joint master's degree in journalism and Latin American studies.