Fuel costs sending immigrants back to Mexico
FORT WORTH — The bus that ferries workers twice daily to the Day Labor Center in south Fort Worth is partially empty, but the center’s parking lot is nearly full.
Soon there won’t be enough room to accommodate the vehicles of the workers, who have to drive to the center because contractors are more likely to hire them if they have their own transportation.
But high gas prices are forcing contractors and day laborers to change how they do business, which is causing a ripple effect in other areas.
Construction projects and landscaping jobs are being delayed because contractors can’t afford to pick up workers. And workers faced with additional costs for gasoline or the purchase of a car are giving up on day-labor jobs and going back to their home countries.
"Your car is your job; nothing is more true these days," said Warren Harris, human services coordinator for the center, which assists between 60 and 70 day laborers a day.
A car, however, is a luxury that not every worker who frequents the center can afford.
Some laborers, like Pablo Trinidad, resort to carpooling to reduce gas costs. But Trinidad, 40, says fuel prices decrease the amount he’s able to send to his family in Puebla, Mexico, from $100 to $50.
"If things get worse, I will work only to pay for my ride to go back home," Trinidad said.
Juan Jose Leiva, a native of Zacatecas, Mexico, is staying home more and visits the labor center only twice a week.
"Patrons [contractors] are not paying enough now," said Leiva, who plans to return to Zacatecas in November.
In Mexico, Leiva has no other option than to work in agriculture, a job that he said pays less than $100 per week.
"Despite a rough economy in Mexico, I’ve started to see more workers coming back. They get desperate and return," he said.
Away from the center, the situation is much the same for day laborers. Eddie, 23, a U.S. citizen, is learning with his father, Luis, how to solicit work on public street corners. They declined to give their last names because Luis is undocumented.
"It’s ironic how badly we need a car when gas prices are going up and payment is going down," said Eddie, who quit his job stocking groceries in Fort Worth.
"We need a car, but we just can’t afford it." said Luis, 43, of Coahuila, Mexico.
Eddie and Luis, who look for work every day near the Texas & Pacific Trinity Railway Express Station in downtown Fort Worth, said they used to make $120 per day last year but now accept $65 a day.
"Instead of building houses, people are paying for expensive gas; there’s not enough work for us," said Luis, the father of five children.
Construction workers who don’t have to look for a job at the center or on streets are also facing difficulties because of the cost of fuel, and contractors won’t give them additional money or incentives to make up for the increase.
Javier Arias, owner of Masonry and Stucco Services of Dallas, said his company has 20 workers building a condominium in downtown Fort Worth, and many of them live in Dallas.
"The company can’t afford to pay for a transportation stipend," said Arias, chairman of the Hispanic Contractors Association of Texas. "None of them have told me, 'I can’t go to work because I can’t afford gas,’ but I’ve heard that many are gathering, carpooling and paying a share for gas."
Higher fuel prices have also meant fewer clients for Juan Perez, owner of Perez Landscaping, based in Grand Prairie. About 20 percent of his 350 clients are in Fort Worth.
"I had to send letters explaining I was not able to drive my workers as far as Colleyville without charging more for work," said Perez, who spends about $500 a week in gas for his two trucks and about $40 to fill the tanks of his lawn mowers and trimmers.
"I can’t quit filling the tanks," he said. "It’s like closing my business, but it’s getting hard and expensive to work like this," he said.
Instead of losing clients, Vincent Flores, owner of Alamo Foundation and Repair of Fort Worth, lost two workers.
"I can’t guarantee more than three days of work per week for my employees, and unfortunately, that wasn’t enough for them to pay the bills," said Flores, who has a team of four workers.
Some undocumented workers are giving up because of the difficult conditions and are returning to their home countries.
The Mexican Consulate in Dallas became aware of that trend recently when officials noticed an increase in the number of Mexican nationals requesting certificates to enroll their children in Mexican schools, spokesman Eduardo Rea said.
He said that in the past six months, the consulate processed more than 300 school enrollment certificates — as many as it recorded in all of 2007.
Rea said it’s a coincidence the way things happened. The workers came here for opportunities that are now greatly affected by the economic crisis.
"The reason why they are going back is because of the lack of opportunities," he said.
After almost two years finding jobs at the Day Labor Center in Fort Worth, Trinidad said he thinks every day that he is closer to returning home. "Every week, there’s someone who leaves," he said. "Who knows? I may soon be next."