For more than two years, Otoniel Lopez Cortez arrived at the Westlake day labor center before 6:30 a.m. to wait for jobs painting houses. Some weeks he earned a few hundred dollars, enough to pay his rent and bills and send money home to Guatemala.
But after four months with only one day of work, Lopez made the decision last month to return to his native country.
“I don’t want to go back, but there is no work,” said Lopez, 18. “It’s better to be with my family, even though we don’t have much.”
With the ongoing economic downturn and the collapse of the construction industry, day laborers in California are feeling the effects. Now, some immigrant workers are choosing to go home rather than wait for a rebound.
California’s unemployment rate hit 7.3% last month, compared with 5.4% the previous July. The number of construction jobs dropped by 84,000 over the previous year, according to the state Employment Development Department.
Many unemployed construction workers, including citizens and legal residents, have turned to hiring halls for work, creating more competition for daily jobs, said Abel Valenzuela, a UCLA professor who has researched day laborers across the nation. There are also fewer jobs available for dayworkers, as Californians have less disposable income for moving, remodeling, painting and landscaping.
In fact, Valenzuela said, anecdotal evidence shows that only about 10% to 15% of workers get hired daily, down from about 40% a few years ago.
On Lopez’s last day, 58 workers showed up at the Westlake day laborer center, near Home Depot in the Pico-Union neighborhood. Only 11 got jobs. By noon, dozens of men were still waiting, passing the time by playing dominoes, watching television and practicing English with a teacher.
“Things are really drying up,” prompting dayworkers to start thinking about alternatives, Valenzuela said. “One of them is, clearly, to leave the United States and head back.”
The economy, along with increased border enforcement, may also be discouraging some migrants from coming to the United States. Apprehensions at the Southern border this year are 17% below last year’s, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.
Lopez said he sneaked across the border in 2006 for the same reason as most illegal immigrants: to make a better life for himself and to earn money for his family. He also wanted to get away from the gang life that had consumed much of his youth. He came to Los Angeles, where he started attending church, studying English and making friends with other immigrant workers at the day labor center.
After deciding to leave, he sought help at the Guatemalan Consulate, which gave him a bus ticket home. He cleaned out the room he had rented for $250 and packed his clothes, Bible, English notebooks and soccer trophy. He called his mother, who had been sick and wanted him to return.
On Aug. 22, the hiring hall, run by the Central American Resource Center, held a farewell lunch of ceviche, rice and cake for Lopez. The other workers applauded for Lopez as director Jeronimo Salguero hugged him and presented him with a certificate honoring his work and time at the center.
Salguero said Lopez’s departure was sad but not surprising. Given the choice between suffering in your own country or in another, he said, you might as well eat beans and be with your family.
Last Sunday, Lopez boarded a bus bound for Guatemala. He would arrive in four days.
The decision to leave is not an easy one. Most undocumented immigrants pay thousands of dollars and risk dangerous journeys to get to the U.S.
Another worker at the center, Jose Morales, 38, said he also wanted to return to Guatemala but had to first pay his $5,000 smuggling debt. Before sneaking across the border last year, Morales said, he’d heard stories about plentiful work in the United States.
“Now I am seeing with my own eyes that here is the same as my country,” he said.
Manuel Barajas, 44, a dayworker who has worked just a few days in five months and lives with his sister, said he wouldn’t have left his electrician job in Mexico and come in January had he known of the economic situation in California.
“It’s been a bad year,” Barajas said.
His pregnant wife and their year-old child are still in Mexico. Barajas said he would like to be home by the time their second baby is born next month.
Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego, said his research shows that migrants who have been here for more than one year and had close relatives living with them “intended to ride out the recession.” But he said single men are a different story.
“For unattached males with no economic base in the U.S. and no prospects for stable employment, it may make sense to go home and try their luck again when the U.S. economy improves,” Cornelius said.
Many of those who stay in the U.S. are moving from one day labor center to another in search of work. Immigrant workers are also sending less money home. The Mexican central bank reported last month that remittances from other countries, primarily the U.S., had declined nearly 2.2% the first six months of 2008.
The decrease in jobs and increase in workers have caused desperation among some day laborers, but returning home won’t solve their financial problems, said Pablo Alvarado, head of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
“Even if you work once a week for a full day, that’s $60 if you get the minimum wage,” he said. “That is way above what you make sometimes in a month in your homeland.”
Rick Oltman of Californians for Population Stabilization said the fact that some immigrants were returning home as a result of the declining economy showed that a lack of jobs could be a deterrent.
“Until they cut off the employment magnet, they are not serious about enforcement,” Oltman said. “The economy is giving us an example of how it would work.”