Sunday, May 23, 1999

Jobs lure Hispanic immigrants to Tristate

Legal and illegal, more fill low-skill positions

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Greater Cincinnati's fertile job market is known in remote villages of Guatemala and El Salvador, in towns on both sides of the Rio Grande and in the swampy produce fields of Florida.

        Word is spread by family members and friends in the Tristate region who have found relative prosperity, few federal immigration agents and a network of support.

        “Work is clearly the lure,” said Patrick Elersic, officer in charge of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) office in Cincinnati. “They'll do the stuff you can't get Americans to do.”

        Employment opportunities are so plentiful here that many immigrants with limited skills and little English have their choice of jobs. Juan Carlos, a Guatemalan with a legal work permit, recently quit his hotel dishwashing job to pursue higher-paying factory work.

        “It's no problem to find job here,” said the 26-year-old, who is sponsored by a Catholic order of nuns and lives in Winton Place.

        Almost two years after a high-profile federal raid rounded up 129 undocumented workers at a Butler County packaging plant, legal and illegal immigrants continue to come here from Central America.

        “If anyone in this market is looking for work, they're going to find work, semiskilled or entry-level,” said Bill Hart. He is president of Employers Resource Association, a Bond Hill trade group with a membership of 950 human resource managers.

        “Companies are training people. Companies are promoting people. There are more entry-level jobs than people to fill them.”

        Much of the local Hispanic population is transient or underground because many people are here illegally, say immigrant advocates and a federal asylum official.

        The latest wave of Hispanic immigrants is generally poorer and less skilled than the Tristate's established Hispanic residents. As a result, newcomers are more dependent on each other and concentrated in specific areas — creating communities in Hamilton, Lower Price Hill, Florence, Covington and Addyston.

        The most recent arrivals fill many jobs: construction, janitorial, packaging, materials handling, landscaping, simple assembly and food service.

        There's a lot of work to choose from. The most recent economic data show more than 2,500 new local jobs are created every month and the Tristate's unemployment rate is among the lowest in the nation, 3.2 percent. Construction jobs have climbed to record heights, employing about 43,300 in September.

        As a result, documented Hispanic workers are receiving a warm welcome from the Greater Cincinnati Building and Construction Trades Council. Many of its member unions are attempting to increase minority membership to 20 percent within five years, said Jerry Monahan, executive secretary of the Building and Construction Trades Council.

        The Building Trades Council has joined with Hispanic representatives in the local Catholic Church, the Baptist Ministers Conference and the West End Community Council to recruit and train minorities for union membership.

        Many roofers and drywallers who are undocumented Hispanic workers are paid $5 or $6 an hour for jobs that pay a prevailing wage of $19 and $20. Subcontractors who employ them are pocketing the difference and, to boot, are not paying federal, state and Social Security taxes or paying into the unemployment and worker compensation systems, say union organizers and INS officials.

        “These subcontractors are ripping off the taxpayers,” said Robert Lese, a Carpenters Union representative.

Legal challenge
        It's tough to crack the code of silence that defines these illegal rings, union officials say. The workers don't want to risk losing salaries that — while far below U.S. scale — are a fortune in their homelands.

        Agricultural workers in Guatemala, for example, earn about $1.50 a day.

        “When they come here, they tell me they can earn four days' pay in one hour,” said Simon Garcia Talamantes, 71, a Spanish-language interpreter for local police and courts. “They are amazed.”

        The carpenters union estimates that 2,500 illegal Hispanic immigrants are working in construction in the Tristate, most in residential building taking place outside the Interstate 275 loop.

        Because of their work ethic, Hispanic workers — legal and illegal — are prized by many local employers.

        Two dozen of the 175 employees at Basco Manufacturing Co. in Mason are documented Hispanic immigrants, including some U.S. citizens, most of them from Mexico.

        “They are dedicated, prompt and grateful for our benefits, programs and pay,” said Margie Burke, human resources director at Basco, which makes shower doors. “We would be hard-pressed to fill those jobs without Hispanic workers. Staffing is horrible right now.”

Effect of Mitch
        From 1996 through most of 1998, most of the Central American immigrants coming to the Tristate were from Mexico and Guatemala.

        The devastation wrought by Hurricane Mitch in October has increased migration from Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

        Roberto is 33 and married with three young daughters. Before Mitch, he had a good job as a cab driver in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. He has a permit to be in the United States under a temporary amnesty program for hurricane victims but is not allowed to work.

        But the lack of legal papers won't stop him from finding a job in Greater Cincinnati. He has been in the area since late April.

        “If I can find a job and work all the time, I could be here two years and recoup my losses from the hurricane,” Roberto said through an interpreter.

        Roberto said he has a lead on a Tristate factory job that will pay him more than $8 an hour. The employer is more concerned about his ability to pass the drug test and willingness to work hard than his immigration status, Roberto's interpreter said.

        There is a market here for Hispanic workers, like Roberto, who don't have the papers to work legally, say immigrant advocates and employment experts. And there's a way for them to get here.

        Three independent sources who work with Hispanics say at least two “coyotes” — slang for people who smuggle illegal workers into the United States — are operating in Greater Cincinnati. One ring cycles migrant workers, in the United States legally with 90-day agriculture permits, into construction work in non-harvest seasons. Workers are being brought into the Tristate from smugglers with connections in Nashville, Tenn., and Atlanta.

        They often charge several hundred or more than a thousand dollars for transportation (most often in the backs of vans) and false work permits, green cards and Social Security cards.

        Many of the immigrants and illegal aliens coming here are young men, either single or, like Roberto from Honduras, married with children to support. They're also willing to work for lower wages and fewer benefits than American workers.

        But what's going on right now in Greater Cincinnati is not unusual in Midwestern and other interior cities. Nor is it that much different from historical migration patterns.

        “Migration follows jobs and family and friends,” said University of Cincinnati economist George Vredeveld.

Support network
        Beyond family and friends, Hispanic immigrants receive a great deal of help getting here and adjusting to life in Greater Cincinnati.

        Several social-service agencies, many of them church-based, help anyone who approaches them, but they won't ask to see immigration papers.

        “Our position is it's not up to us to find out if people are documented or undocumented. That's up to the INS,” said the Rev. Joe Nelson, director of Su Casa Catholic Ministry Center in Carthage.

        The Archdiocese of Cincinnati opened the parish for the Catholic Hispanic Community in June in the Carthage church, St. Charles Borromeo, which had been closed. A Hispanic center — offering employment, medical and legal assistance, English classes, food and used clothing — opened in October in a former school.

        The Diocese of Covington has a similar ministry for Hispanics in Northern Kentucky.

        Some local Baptist, Pentecostal and Methodist churches offer various assistance to Hispanics, including Spanish-language worship services.

        Not all of the assistance is church-oriented or even organized. Many individual Hispanics — business owners, landlords — provide additional orientation help to newcomers.

        The Pan-American Society of Greater Cincinnati holds social events several times a year to which all Hispanic nationalities and classes are invited and encouraged to mix.

        The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cincinnati helps Hispanic business owners and aspiring business owners make connections and secure loans.

The future
        Attitudes toward foreign workers — including Hispanics — are good, for now, says Mark Evans, a Cincinnati lawyer who specializes in political asylum cases and has more than 75 current clients. Most of the opposition, he says, comes from citizens who don't want illegal workers taking jobs from Americans.

        “It's a lot bigger issue when the job market is tight,” Mr. Evans said. “That's not an issue now. A lot of people (U.S. citizens) around here say they don't mind people coming here to work if they do it legally.”

        And while the Tristate is benefitting from cheap, illegal labor now, the downside could show up in five or 10 years, an immigration official says.

        “You've invited them in, but what happens when the economy isn't as strong?” said Robert Esbrook, director of the Chicago Office of Asylum, a branch of the INS with jurisdiction over Cincinnati. “First off, what you're doing is against the law.

        “But then you've created a social-service problem and problems with bilingual education.”

Illegal worker cases are low priority for INS
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