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Latinos who flocked to the once-burgeoning Inland Empire are hard-hit in economic downturn

Because the construction and service jobs they filled are gone and the houses they bought may be in foreclosure, they feel the brunt of the recession.

August 02, 2009|Anna Gorman and Rich Connell

With sprawling new housing tracts transforming the Inland Empire earlier this decade, word traveled to immigrants across the state. There were jobs -- lots of jobs.

Mexican native Ramon Granados got the news in the Northern California town of Watsonville. He moved to Riverside in 2004 and quickly was hired as an electrician.

"There was tons of work -- new apartments, new construction," said Granados, 25, a U.S. citizen. "Everybody wanted to come to this part of California."

He had a steady job for four years, working his way up to $17 an hour plus benefits for himself, his wife and their two children. But when the economy crashed last year, Granados was laid off. These days, he waits under a tree outside a Home Depot off the 91 Freeway, hoping for a day's work at $8 an hour.

"I'll do anything to bring food to my table," he said. "Here, I get at least a chance of getting a job."

Granados and fellow immigrants transformed the face of the Inland Empire. As hundreds of thousands of immigrants chased construction and service jobs and the chance to own a home in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, the region's Latino population soared. Latinos were one-quarter of Riverside County's population in the 1990 Census, for example, and 43% by 2007.

Now, with the region's economy reeling from a brutal recession in which home construction has collapsed and unemployment rates have soared as high as 20% in some areas, its immigrant residents are among the hardest hit.

Economic data do not single out the recession's effects on immigrants, but researchers and employment specialists note that Latinos, including many immigrants, are heavily represented in construction jobs that have some of the Inland Empire's highest unemployment rates.

Joblessness among Latinos across California has surpassed all other ethnic groups, including blacks, for the first time since the economic downturn began, according to new data released by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

And UC Riverside professor Vanessa Estrada Correa said her research shows that Latinos tend to have more subprime mortgages than those in other ethnic groups and are overrepresented in neighborhoods with high foreclosure rates.

The shift of immigrants to inland counties in the years before the recession marked a fundamental change in settlement patterns, according to a recently released detailed analysis of immigrant movement by the Public Policy Institute of California.

From 2000 to 2007, the number of immigrants in San Bernardino and Riverside counties grew 55%, from 490,946 to 761,629, researchers found. Despite being far larger at 3.5 million, the immigrant population in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area grew by just 161,000, or 4.6%, in the same period.

Many of the immigrants -- legal and illegal, blue-collar workers and college graduates -- left homelands or supportive big-city ethnic enclaves behind. Pursuing jobs, higher wages and homeownership in new areas may be a positive development, said Sarah Bohn, a lead author of the study.

"That may mean they are grabbing hold of economic opportunities and assimilating faster than in the past," she said.

It also can increase social conflicts and challenges.

"Because they are choosing areas with less established immigrant networks," Bohn said, "they don't have the institutions or organizations to fall back upon."

Now many immigrants, including some who have been in the U.S. for decades, are struggling to adapt to unemployment in new areas around the state.

Workforce development offices have seen a five-fold increase in jobless clients seeking retraining, many of them minorities, according to the Riverside County Economic Development Agency.

Edwin Fuentes, 41, a naturalized U.S. citizen from El Salvador, flipped through postings at the Workforce Development Center of Riverside County last month. He left Santa Ana in 2006 to buy his first home in Perris. Later that year, the plumbing company where he worked for eight years, earning $20 an hour, shut down. His home went into foreclosure, and he and his wife have moved in with relatives.

Jobs are scarce, he said. "You find work and then when things get slow, they lay you off and you start all over again."

Immigrants often find it harder to land new jobs, because many lack education or English skills and aren't as comfortable applying for positions online, said Sylvia Spigner, a job center worker. And job competition has become fierce. In some cases, Spigner said, skilled applicants are chasing jobs as truck drivers, dishwashers and phone operators. "The immigrants are competing with professionals who are willing to take these jobs," she said.

Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster said the increase in immigrants coupled with the economic downturn has prompted debate over immigration policy and funding for local services.

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