WASHINGTON As an economic slowdown and the subprime mortgage crisis deepen across the United States, Hispanic immigrants are increasingly in danger of losing their jobs and their homes.
Both legal and illegal immigrants joined Americans in buying homes they could barely afford when the market spiraled upward and many have been caught with mortgages higher than the value of their homes as prices have slumped in the past year.
Just as subprime mortgage payments rose and house prices fell, the economy's slowdown has hurt the construction sector, which employs large numbers of Hispanics and other immigrants.
Unemployment among Hispanics in the United States jumped to 6.3 percent in December, up from 5.7 percent the previous month and well above the national average of 5 percent, U.S. Department of Labor statistics show.
And almost half of the mortgage loans in the hands of Hispanics are subprime, making them especially vulnerable to the housing downturn.
"Economic conditions are deteriorating and many immigrants now can't work those extra hours or find that second job to keep up with their mortgage payments," said Aracely Panameno at the Center for Responsive Lending (CRL) research policy group.
Nelson, a 29-year-old legal immigrant and construction worker from El Salvador, had a miserable run of luck in November, when he lost his job and his subprime mortgage bills jumped $650 to about $2,650.
He says he now has to sell the home he bought in Maryland in 2005. If he is unable to sell in the next four months, he will have to foreclose, meaning an even bigger financial loss and a damaging black mark on his credit record.
"I have to practically give it away," he said.
Like many caught up in the crisis, the father of three said he had no idea his monthly payments would soar two years into the mortgage when he closed the adjustable-rate subprime deal.
"You have to sign a lot of things when you buy a house, so I didn't read, I just signed. I think it was the anxiety, the happiness of buying my house," he said. "I feel a bit betrayed."
U.S. President George W. Bush and Congressional leaders are working on an economic stimulus package worth almost $150 billion to fend off a possible recession, and Bush last month unveiled a plan to slow the wave of home loan foreclosures by freezing the rates on some subprime loans.
But experts say most of the immigrants in financial trouble are either not entitled to help under the rescue plan or are not taking advantage of it.
There are around 43 million Hispanics in the United States, making them the country's largest minority, and Mexicans and Central Americans account for the vast majority of some 12 million illegal immigrants.
Tighter immigration laws and police raids have added further pressure on illegal workers and residents.
"There is less work, and more fear (of deportation)," said one Mexican illegal immigrant who lives with his family in Kansas. "Employers are relying more and more on you having a Social Security number in order."
Although there is no formal tally, Mexican consular sources say a growing number of illegal immigrants across the United States are starting to pack their bags and return home.
Illegal immigrants were able to buy U.S. homes during the boom years, either by showing evidence that they pay taxes or by simply presenting false documents.
Many of them took out high interest fixed-rate loans or subprime mortgages with a low entry rate that later rose sharply. Experts say language difficulties made them more vulnerable to being offered, and taking, bad deals.
"They were more exposed to abuse," said Alejandra Louden of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's housing department, which carried out a recent study on Latino home loan foreclosures. "Documents were in English and explained in Spanish, and some vital explanation would be missing."
(Editing by Kieran Murray)