Simon Leon came to the United States in 1977 with nothing. But the former migrant worker from Moroleon, Mexico, achieved the quintessential dream of owning a home and giving his children a better life.
Now after more than 30 years in Florida, he might have to return to Mexico and leave behind the little pink house in Auburndale that he has repaired and improved one tile at a time.
Leon is among the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who benefited from the boom in construction, abandoning lower-paying agricultural and service jobs to lay stucco and nail down roofs. He and others are now finding themselves without jobs as the downturn in housing construction diminishes demand for their labor.
Workers who two years ago barely kept up with the frantic building pace now pray to find any work.
The lack of steady income has reached a crisis point as workers -- mostly immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America -- run out of money, say community advocates in Apopka, Pierson, Haines City and Auburndale.
Though some workers are leaving for other parts of the United States, some are returning to their home countries -- their lives shattered by debt, foreclosures and repossessions.
"This is something that is very painful for families," said the Rev. Jorge Torres Vergara, a Roman Catholic priest who ministers to a large Hispanic congregation at St. Ann Catholic Church in Haines City. "There are people who are losing their homes and do not even have money for gas."
The downturn in the housing market has affected immigrant communities across the U.S., experts say.
Hispanic unemployment has climbed significantly in the past six months, partly because "the happy days of construction" are over, said Rakesh Kochhar, associate director for research at the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.
"We are definitely seeing a slowdown in the jobs in construction for Hispanics," Kochhar said. "This will have a negative impact on wages for them."
Leon, who became a legal immigrant in the 1980s, has been able to hold on to the house where he lives with his wife and two teenage children by taking other jobs -- ranging from picking oranges to buying and selling old cars.
He hasn''''t had a roofing job, which pays $10 an hour or more, since May. His income has since been cut in half.
"This is going to sound bad," said Leon, 62, "but many of us roofers are waiting for a hurricane to come by and damage some roofs, because the truth is that we don''''t know what to do to make a living."
At a recent gathering of Hispanic builders in Orlando, keynote speaker Hipolito Roldon, who leads the nonprofit Hispanic Housing Development Corp. in Chicago, said the immigrants'''' plight should concern everyone.
"We Americans need to realize that perhaps we need them as much as they need America," Roldon said. "If they weren''''t here, we''''d be like Japan and other places in Europe with zero growth. They work here; they pay taxes and are a net fiscal benefit to our economy."
''''They made a choice''''
Hardest hit by the souring of the construction industry are illegal immigrants. They cannot collect unemployment or any other government benefits. And they are not eligible for such aid as tax rebates from the stimulus package approved by the U.S. Congress to reinvigorate the economy.
Immigration-control advocates have long said that only strict enforcement coupled with sealed borders and restricted access to jobs would curtail illegal immigration. They call it reform by attrition: meaning that if unauthorized immigrants lack incentives to live here, they will leave, and others will stop coming.
"Our point of view is that the first priority of America should be making sure that Americans and legal residents have jobs," said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for NumbersUSA, a Washington-based advocacy group for immigration reduction. "We understand it''''s a difficult position for illegal immigrants to be in, but they made a choice that involved risks, and it''''s not working out."
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