NEW YORK (AFP) — The immigrants gathered at dawn to chase the American Dream, but as fast as the sun soared over New York, so the dream slid from their grasp.
About 60 men wearing boots, jeans and sweatshirts, most of them illegal immigrants from Latin America, stood silently at the Brooklyn crossroads.
They watched the traffic and when a vehicle drew up rushed to offer their services -- construction, rubble clearing, anything, at 60 to 100 dollars a day.
But on that mid-week day almost no one drove up, and after two hours only four men had found jobs.
"It's terrible," said Miguel Gonzalez, 48, who two months ago left his four children and wife in Puebla, Mexico, to make the dangerous, illegal journey to New York.
"There is almost no work. In the whole week we might find work for one or two days."
New York -- where the Statue of Liberty promises a "golden door" to the "huddled masses" -- is as dependent on immigrants as it is on Wall Street.
More than three million of the city's 8.3 million residents were born abroad -- 51.7 percent of them in Latin America, 26.1 percent in Asia and 17.3 percent in Europe, according to recent census figures.
And when the US finance sector collapsed, shock waves raced from gleaming Manhattan to sprawling neighborhoods like Brooklyn, where for many English is the second language.
A lack of jobs and ever-tightening borders has already slowed illegal immigration nationwide over the last two years, a report from the Pew Hispanic Center shows.
Now with the crisis threatening low-paid, immigrant-friendly niches of the economy, the environment is becoming even less fertile.
"Construction will turn down. Things around the financial community will turn down -- restaurants, laundries, delicatessens, even things like doing your nails," said demographer Andrew Beveridge, head of the sociology department at Queens College.
"The service people, nannies, maids, etc, I think they will all feel the downturn," he told AFP.
Nancy Foner, a sociologist at Hunter College in New York, said the nationwide credit crunch would especially hurt immigrant families trying to finance their first house.
"They are vulnerable because they often make do by pooling incomes in their families. If one loses a job, it may be very hard for them to meet mortgage payments," she said.
In Queens, a neighborhood heavily populated by Greek and Italian immigrants, butcher shop owner Tom Georgeou, 47, said he felt sorry for anyone arriving in such troubled times.
"Finding jobs is rough. Not many people are hiring, not in the restaurant business, not in the meat, fish, grocery places, the mom and pop stores," said Georgeou, who emigrated from Greece in 1969. "These are really tough days."
Queens resident Gigi Cervegnano, 61, who came to New York as a child from Italy, also warned today's would-be immigrants to think twice.
She has just lost her job after 25 years at a marketing company and the Wall Street stock crash wiped 50,000 dollars off the value of her pension plan.
"You should stay in your own country. There you can enjoy life day by day. Here you work your behind off for some future. But that's what I did and look what the future turned out to be."
Cervegnano, who leaned on a walking stick, but radiated energy, chuckled as she recalled her "naive" father believing that "in America the money grows on trees."
Yet the dream survives.
At the Brooklyn crossroads there were men who'd risked everything to reach this promised land, where they can earn wages 10 times higher than in their impoverished home countries.
To enter the United States they had paid traffickers a small fortune: about 7,000 dollars from Mexico and as much as 15,000 dollars for longer trips, such as from Ecuador.
Pablo Enrique, 31, a specialist in plastering, said immigrants become virtually prisoners, since they must at a minimum recoup the cost of their journey, which is typically financed through family loans.
He had not seen his family in El Salvador for 12 years.
"It's been OK, more or less making do. But it's gone down a lot now. There's less and less work," said Enrique, his face tanned and hardened.
There was still hope, but there was more disappointment.
When a black van slowed by the curb of Coney Island Avenue a dozen men mobbed the open window shouting "boss!" and "amigo!" Then they slumped away: the driver was just parking, not hiring.
"We are ignorant," said one of the men, Oscar, 29. "What happens is that we hear in Mexico is that the United States is the country of marvels, full of money. Then when we get here and we realize the truth."
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