WASHINGTON — Migrants from Mexico and Central America are finding it harder to get jobs and are living under a dramatically increased sense of siege, according to a study released Wednesday.
The study, by the Inter-American Development Bank and the Bendixen polling firm, demonstrates for the first time with hard numbers the impact that the immigration debate in Washington is having on America's streets.
The study also shows that remittances to Mexico are still growing but much more slowly. The study's authors attribute this to migrants hunkering down in communities where the backlash against them is strongest.
In recent years, Mexican migrants have moved deep into the South and Midwest, places that aren't accustomed to large Latino populations.
"What I have found is both ugly and sad," said Sergio Bendixen, the founder of the Miami-based Bendixen & Associates. "There are millions of Latin American immigrants, especially those living in the deep South and the upper Midwest, whose lives have been made miserable by the anti-immigrant sentiment that is now so prevalent in so many geographic areas."
Bendixen has been conducting the survey since 2001 for the Inter-American Development Bank, a multilateral bank that makes loans to Latin American nations. He told a news conference that the numbers showing that Hispanics are targets of discrimination have never been so stark.
More than one-third of Central Americans and 30 percent of Mexicans said their biggest problem in the United States was discrimination, compared with single-digit responses for similar questions in 2004, and 83 percent of Mexicans and 79 percent of Central Americans said this year that discrimination was rising.
Eighty-two percent of Mexicans and 84 percent of Central Americans said they found it more difficult to obtain good-paying jobs than they did a year ago. Forty-five percent blamed the increased difficulty on problems with documentation and 21 percent blamed a lack of jobs.
The poll was conducted in June, at the height of the Senate debate on overhauling immigration laws. A proposal to provide an avenue for many migrants to legalize their status failed amid a backlash, mostly from conservatives demanding a crackdown on illegal immigration.
President Bush, speaking to a group of economics reporters Wednesday, expressed sympathy for the plight of the migrants and those who seek to employ them.
"I predicted after the comprehensive immigration bill went down to defeat in the Senate there would be blowback," he said. "And to start with employers, they're saying, 'Where am I going to get my peach pickers in Georgia or my apple pickers in Washington . . . or my chicken pluckers in central Arkansas.' There's a lot of labor that Americans aren't doing that are being done by people who are here and want to work hard for a living."
The new findings come as the Department of Homeland Security prepares to announce a crackdown on workplace violations of immigration laws. The cornerstone of the tougher enforcement would be a new rule that could lead to the firings of thousands of illegal workers who are suspected of using phony Social Security data in their job applications.
"The American people should expect to see more work-site cases," Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said Wednesday. "We are tough on the enforcement of our laws, and we are going to be even tougher."
At the news conference announcing the study's findings, organizers ran clips of the focus groups conducted by researchers in Miami and New York, showing migrants complaining about low-paying jobs, rising prices and workplace discriminations against those with darker skins.
Researchers interviewed 900 migrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Just over half of those polled said they were undocumented. The margin of error is 3 percentage points.
More than half of those polled had been in the United States for more than 10 years, and 2 out of every 10 made less than $20,000 a year.
The IDB/Bendixen report estimates that Mexicans will send $23.4 billion back home to their families this year, only a 1 percent increase from last year. In the first half of this year, remittance growth was just 0.6 percent, compared with a 23 percent jump in the first half of last year.
Central Americans are expected to send nearly $10 billion in remittances this year, an 8 percent jump from the year before.
The difference between the groups is because 18 percent of Mexicans live outside the traditional areas of large Latino populations: California, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, Illinois, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and the District of Colombia. Only 3 percent of Central Americans live outside those states, however.
It is Mexicans, who moved to those new locations in droves in recent years, who are feeling the heat from anti-immigrant sentiment. Before, 80 percent of them used to send money back home; now, only 49 percent do.
"They feel unprotected," Bendixen said. "They have nowhere to go for help."
(Dave Montgomery and Kevin G. Hall contributed to this report.)