Elkhart County, Ind. — Angel Rodriguez stood on the front lawn, cradling his infant son, surrounded by porcelain figures, a playpen, a couch, shoes — the familiar ephemera accumulated in better times.
Losing his job with a supplier in the boat manufacturing industry forced Rodriguez and his family to trade their trailer in Milford, Ind., for a single bedroom in the one-bathroom, one-story dwelling they share with eight others some 20 miles north, in Elkhart. It also meant shedding belongings to compensate for the lost space, as well as lost income. So Rodriguez was having a yard sale.
"When I lived in Milford, I lived alone with my kids. I didn’t need anybody’s help," said the husband and father of two. "Now I have to sell my things."
A dozen people living in a single house is not ideal, but it's the price Rodriguez must pay to stay in the United States. Like other Mexican immigrants hit by the recession, it gives his family a way of dealing with the loss of income without having to return to his native country.
"Us illegals, we don’t have unemployment," said Rodriguez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico City. "If I had unemployment, I wouldn’t have had to give up the trailer."
Hispanic immigrants, chiefly those here illegally, are particularly vulnerable as the recession lingers. Without proper documentation, those out of work can’t access unemployment and other government benefits, increasing the pressure to pull up stakes and look for opportunity elsewhere. Still, many who came to the United States looking to improve their life — make money, open up opportunities for their children, help support family still in Mexico — are hardly eager to return.
Mexico "is a Third World country," said Rodriguez, who knows several who have already gone back. It’s a last resort he’s not willing to consider.
"How’s that going to be? It’s going to be worse."
Thus, Rodriguez and his family make do, exchanging privacy for a shared home and a cheaper lifestyle.
Many immigrants, like Rodriguez, are fighting hard to stay. Some, however, have already trickled back. Whether to stay or leave seems to be a question on everybody's mind.
"Many people are making these decisions," said Ignacio Chagoya, who works with the needy, including some immigrants, at Elkhart's St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. "Do I go to another state? Do I go to Mexico?"
Still, the pressure is strong.
Chagoya, a legal U.S. resident originally from Mexico, lost his factory job here last December and is considering a move to find work, notwithstanding the 23 years he has lived in Elkhart. It's tough, especially since he'd leave behind his two daughters, who live here with their mother, his ex-wife.
At least he has his U.S. residency card, and, thus, a better shot at securing work, precluding a forced or premature return to Mexico. Some he knows who have gone back to Mexico — almost exclusively undocumented immigrants — have done so because they have no other option, their resources whittled to zero.
"The idea was to return with assets," said Chagoya, alluding to the dream some immigrants harbor of making it big here and returning to Mexico with a pocketful of money. "But they're leaving defeated, sad."
To stay or go
At WKAM, the phone calls are frequent: those on the other end will ask about job leads, fret about the economy and sound off about the notion of moving back to Mexico.
"The No. 1 worry is unemployment," said Nacho Zepeda, general manager and disc jockey at the Spanish-language AM radio station, better known as La Mejor.
Spanish-language radio serves as a cultural lifeline in many Hispanic immigrant communities. Such stations are virtual town squares for the immigrant community, and it’s no different at La Mejor.
Recently, in response to Zepeda’s query to listeners about how they’re weathering the tough times, the calls to the Elkhart County station, based in Goshen, started coming in.
One man, an out-of-work caller originally from Mexico, expressed skepticism about the American Dream — the idea that you can come to the United States, get a job and live happily ever after. Still, he and his wife are hanging on, helped by his brother. No way are they going to leave Elkhart County and return to Mexico.
"What am I going to do in Mexico?" he wondered, repeating a common refrain. "It’s worse."
Hope for a better life brought many from Mexico to the United States. When the Mexican immigration boom began in the 1970s, many settled in border towns in places like California and Texas. But in the early 1990s, ample job opportunities for both documented and undocumented immigrants drew growing numbers to the Midwest. Here in Elkhart County, the once-booming recreational vehicle manufacturing industry was the draw, quadrupling the immigrant population in a decade.
The Hispanic community in Elkhart and across the country is growing. In Elkhart, Hispanics make up 14 percent of Elkhart's roughly 200,000 residents and are the largest minority group in the county. In 1990, they were just 2 percent of the population. Nationally, Hispanics make up 15 percent of the overall population and have accounted for half the U.S. population growth since 2000.
Now comes the economic downturn, a slowdown in immigration for the first time in decades and increasing uncertainty among the immigrants already here. A recent Pew report notes that the slowdown in U.S. economic growth "has had a disproportionate impact on foreign-born Latino workers" who experienced layoffs in a larger percentage than U.S.-born workers.
Another caller to La Mejor explained that she has been jobless for six months and scrapes by selling tamales she makes at home. At least if she were back in her native Mexico she could venture into the countryside and snag something free to eat, like nopales, the edible pads of the prickly pear cactus.
"I’m thinking if it doesn’t get better, I’ll go back," she said, sobbing. "If you don’t have money you don’t have food."
But there’s a catch to consider. With tightening border security and the increasing difficulty of making a clandestine crossing from Mexico into the United States, a return south of the border may not be easy to reverse should things improve. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported a 20 percent increase in deportations over the last fiscal year.
Then there are the kids to contend with. More than half of the 16 million Hispanic children in the United States have at least one foreign-born parent, according to Pew. Yet children of immigrants with little to no first-hand experience with their parents’ home country may resist a move.
"They have American friends. They speak English. They consider themselves American," said Vera LeCount, coordinator of the English as a Second Language program at the Elkhart Area Career Center, operated by the Elkhart school district. "I don’t think they could consider what it would be like to live there."
Parents, too, may be reluctant to pull their kids out of school here, mindful of the limited educational offerings back in the home country and broader opportunities here. That seemed to be the case with another caller to Zepeda’s radio show, a woman originally from Mexico. She said she and her husband are determined to stay in Elkhart County, in part to see their U.S.-born son graduate from college here.
"I’m proud of my American son and I’m not going to leave," she said. "I’m not leaving because I’ve built a family here."
When Elias Garcia arrived in Elkhart County 10 years ago from Mexico City, he didn’t have plans to stay. Just 16 years old at the time, Garcia crossed the desert with his older brother with the sole purpose of reuniting — however briefly — with their father who’d left Mexico two years prior.
"I just came to see him again," said Garcia, who looks younger than his 26 years, despite his spiked hair and full moustache. "After a while I decided to go to high school and learn English."
A decade later, returning to Mexico is no longer an option Garcia considers. Instead he attends Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College part time, building his computer skills in hopes of a more secure future. As a part-time computer skills and GED preparation instructor at Learning Generation Initiative, a not-for-profit adult learning service, he helps others do the same.
It’s a fate Garcia may have never considered while struggling as a young student with a tentative grasp on English in a high school that at the time had little support for Spanish-speaking students. "I didn’t have anybody in my house who knew English and could help me with my homework," he said. "I didn’t have anybody to tell me what I needed to do to go to college."
College wasn’t an affordable option after high schoolfor Garcia anyway. He said tuition would have cost double had he registered as an international student. So when he landed a job at Coachmen Industries, he figured, like many others in the RV industry, he was set for life. Six-and-a-half years later he found himself laid off.
With the hard times hitting everyone, Garcia now sees the other immigrant students he went to high school with — the ones who dropped out — showing up for classes.
"Some of them didn't want to stay an extra year to go get the necessary credits for a diploma," he said. They’re fighting for a way to stay, too. "Now they come back maybe they have two or three kids, now they see they need a diploma so they come back. That’s the hard way though."
As for Garcia, without documentation, he doesn’t know if a job that can utilize his computer skills is a possibility. "I’d like to work in an office or own my own computer business someday," he said. "Maybe this President will change things. I hope …"
So he, Angel Rodriguez and others scrape by, cutting corners, relying on friends and doing everything they can to make sure their version of the American Dream doesn’t fade away.
As Rodriguez knows, moving in with others doesn’t come without cost — even if you do manage to unload a lot of stuff at a garage sale. He’s the man who moved himself, his wife and their two kids into a home with eight other Mexican friends.
The 12 members of Rodriguez’s new household use the kitchen in shifts and there’s no dilly-dallying in the bathroom. "You go in and just to do what you’ve got to do," he said.
The crisis can’t last forever, though, and when things get better, Rodriguez reasons that he’ll just start over from scratch.
For now, he makes tamales and sells them on the weekends to friends and acquaintances to eke out an existence. He’s also planning another garage sale to get rid of some of the belongings that haven’t already sold.
"We can start from nothing," he said. "It’s like the phoenix rising from the ashes."