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Postcards from the edge

Not all the victims of Sept. 11 and the recession are counted

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At three o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon, Blanca sits on her living room couch, waiting. News of the war in Afghanistan babbles in Spanish from the TV, as a constant flow of children, friends and relatives streams through the front door to the kitchen or bedrooms upstairs. On the wall, colored Christmas lights illuminate a tapestry of the Virgin of Guadalupe hanging next to a white Coca-Cola T-shirt that her husband, Alfredo, bought in better times.

This year, all Alfredo wants for Christmas is a job, and the chance to stay in the U.S. Yesterday, his eldest son, Jose, heard rumors of an opening at the Chinese restaurant where he works, and today the two men rushed to check it out. Blanca is anxiously awaiting their return.

Six months ago, Alfredo was making $500 a week painting houses, hanging Sheetrock and laying floor tiles, while Blanca earned $7.25 an hour as a housekeeper at the Four Seasons Hotel. Together, they could afford food and rent for the three-bedroom apartment near the Lindbergh MARTA station that they share with Blanca's sister and her family.

When they came to the U.S. six years ago, Alfredo and Blanca were part of the great migration of Mexicans to Atlanta in the 1990s, a decade that saw the Latino population in the metro area jump 362 percent. They came to take advantage of a booming economy that benefited, in turn, from their willingness to work for lower wages.

Then came Sept. 11. In the month that followed, 4,177 Atlantans lost their jobs, according to the Georgia Department of Labor. But those numbers don't reflect people like Blanca, who was laid off from the Four Seasons four days after the attacks.

She is among the thousands of uncounted illegal immigrants who work in the construction and hospitality industries, two of the sectors hardest hit by the terrorist attacks.

Ripples from the layoffs have spread south of the border, where the appeal of "el Norte" is diminishing. While hard numbers are impossible to come by, there has been a "very strong decrease" in the number of people crossing the Mexico-U.S. border since Sept. 11, says Teodoro Maus, president of the Mexican American Business Chamber of Atlanta. "One, because immigration got tougher at the border controls ... but mostly because of the grapevine [which] brings back [news] that there are much less jobs available."

What's more, the price of crossing illegally has increased dramatically. Blanca paid $1,800 to the coyote that helped her cross in 1996 (she came with their youngest daughter a year after Alfredo). But one-way passage five years later for her husband was costing $2,500.

Alfredo had gone south in August, just after losing his job in Atlanta. The layoff meant he had to borrow money from his brother for the round-trip, his first visit to his family's dairy farm in Acapulco in six years.

He came back to a household that is struggling. In better times, Blanca would spend $200 every two weeks on groceries for her family of five. Now her food budget has been cut almost in half. Since applying for a bank loan is out of the question, Blanca and Alfredo are depending on family loans to make ends meet. Blanca's sister and brother-in-law are still employed, and 18-year-old Jose helps out with the money he makes working in the Chinese restaurant.

"But we are going to pay it back when we find work," Blanca insists in Spanish.

Alfredo still hasn't heard whether he got the job at the restaurant. But Blanca has faith that God and la Protectora (the Virgin) will help end three months of unemployment. "God willing we will find work," she says.

Last October, the family lost all their possessions when their apartment building burned down. Having started from scratch one year ago, Alfredo isn't ready to give up now. He doesn't want to leave the U.S. while his two younger children, Omar and Itzel, are still in school.

But, he says in Spanish, "If worse comes to worse, if we don't find anything, yes, we will have to return."

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