Immigrant living off the grid sees options fade

The Baltimore Sun

It has never been worse for Juan Montes.

But you won't find his situation reflected in official unemployment figures. As an illegal immigrant from Mexico, he flies below the radar screen in good times and bad.

Montes, 26, says he came to Baltimore 10 years ago and has held a string of low-wage jobs in landscaping, cleaning and the like. The past two years have been tough in terms of finding jobs, but the past month has been toughest. His most recent job was as a $9-an-hour school janitor.

Now he can't find any work, he says, not even the menial jobs that he could once snag easily enough by chatting up fellow Hispanics on the streets around Highlandtown and Fells Point.

"I feel very bad because I can't help my family," he said the other day at Our Lady of Pompei Church in Highlandtown, where the Rev. Luigi Cremis hears a stream of stories like his.

When he talks about his situation, Montes scowls, absently running his hands through his shoulder-length hair. He slumps low in his chair and looks at the ground.

He has not seen his wife, Mariana, and their two young children since he sneaked into and out of Mexico three years ago. The whole point of being here, and not with his family, is to make money that he could not hope to earn back home.

"If the situation doesn't change," he said, "I will probably ask friends for help with money and ask for a ticket home."

As an illegal immigrant, he does not qualify for unemployment benefits. "He can get nothing," said Cremis, the priest. "He doesn't exist in this country."

So he relies on his countrymen. Montes shares a Highlandtown rowhouse with seven other Mexicans, all from Guerrero state. Five of the eight are working. The other two besides Montes recently lost jobs in construction. His housemates have cushioned his lost income, but Montes says he needs to find employment soon.

His desperation has reached the point where he half-jokingly said it might not be so bad if Immigrations and Customs Enforcement deported him - except that then he would not be able to take his belongings with him.

"Worst case," he said, "they can just send me back to Mexico."

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