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AP ROAD TRIP: An Immigrant's Struggles to Survive in Vegas

Two men walk past the El Cortez hotel-casino in downtown Las Vegas, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Two men walk past the El Cortez hotel-casino in downtown Las Vegas, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

The casino has been closed for months. The hotel rooms are empty. Out front, the three-story sign that once beckoned to gamblers with $1.99 margaritas now advertises a food bank in the parking lot every Thursday.

“8 a.m. until all food is distributed,” says the sign at the Fiesta Henderson.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this in America.

“I came here to conquer the United States, to say ‘This is the place where I want to be, where I’ll build my empire,’” says Norma Flores, a Mexican immigrant who spent two decades working at the Fiesta before COVID-19 descended and she lost her job.

Right now, her empire is a concrete block house crowded with six grandchildren, most of them doing school online. She dreads when she overhears a teacher asking what students had for their lunches and snacks. She rarely has enough food for both.

To be an immigrant in Las Vegas is to see the coronavirus economy at its worst.

Visitors to the area plummeted by more than 90 percent amid America’s coronavirus shutdowns. The state’s unemployment rocketed to 28 percent, the worst in the nation.

Across the U.S., immigrant workers suffered disproportionately after COVID-19 struck. But their outsized presence in Las Vegas’ hospitality industry, where they form the working-class backbone of countless hotels, casinos and restaurants, meant a special kind of devastation.

At night, Flores often lies awake, worrying about the rent, gas, food. Like millions of others across the U.S., her unemployment benefits run out the day after Christmas. She’s terrified her family could end up homeless.

“I’m scared I might wake up tomorrow and I won’t have anything,” she says, sitting outside her little house.

A block away, traffic rumbled past on the six-lane road that cuts through town. “I’m scared to be there, you know?”

Three of us -- a reporter, a photographer and a videographer -- came out West on The Associated Press’ road trip across America, a journey that has taken us to nearly a dozen states, talking to people wrestling with the seismic shifts of 2020.

A line in a newspaper brought us here: More than half the members of Las Vegas’ powerful Culinary Workers Union were still unemployed more than eight months into the pandemic. Most of its members are racial minorities or immigrants.

For decades, the working-class neighborhoods that circle Las Vegas called out to foreigners. Beckoned by an ever-growing city with a seemingly endless appetite for workers, they came from dozens of countries. But mostly from Latin America, especially Mexico.

They changed Las Vegas, and Nevada. One in five of the state’s residents are immigrants.

Now those working-class immigrant neighborhoods are home to armies of unemployed housekeepers and cocktail waitresses.

There’s the Filipino hairdresser let go by his salon and desperate for his diabetes medicine, and the Cambodian who shut down his little restaurant.

And there’s Norma Flores.

Flores, 54, hasn’t worked since March, when Nevada’s casinos were ordered closed. She gets $322 a week in unemployment after taxes, but is helping support a son, a daughter and six grandchildren who moved in with her as the state’s economy collapsed.

Her life has become a battle with the mathematics of personal finance. Is there enough money for the $831 rent? How late will the landlord allow her to be? How much food is in the refrigerator?

She calculates to the dollar how much money she has left until the next check arrives.

But sometimes her heart makes that calculation.

On an autumn afternoon, as Flores stands at a supermarket cash register, the cashier asks if she wanted to donate to a local food bank.

“Not today,” Flores says.

She reaches into her big red purse and carefully counts out $17 for her groceries. Then she looks at what she has left -- and hands the cashier $1 for the food bank.

Las Vegas sells itself on fantasies of wealth, luxury and sex, but in reality it feels more like a mixture of endless mall and Disney-ish resort set to the music of amplified slot machines. Gamblers wear jeans and shorts, not tuxedoes.

A rumpled reporter fits right in.

“Loosest slots in Vegas!” says a sign on one casino window. “20 percent off for locals,” says a billboard for a marijuana dispensary.

But this less-than-glamorous world has lifted tens of thousands of people into the middle class, particularly those who manage to get a union job.

The average member of the Culinary Union earns $25 an hour when benefits are included.

For a time, that middle-class life was nearly in Flores’ grasp.

Thirty years ago, she left a Mexican factory job to follow her then-husband to the U.S. She found a job in the Henderson casino, first working as a server in a cafe and later in a buffet restaurant. Eventually, they had six children.

But her marriage unraveled. She bought a house, but lost it when she couldn’t afford the mortgage.

In March, as the pandemic spread, she was laid off. In May, she was fired.

The complex where she long worked is just a couple minutes down the street.

But that doesn’t matter anymore.

Things are a bit better now Las Vegas. Casinos were allowed to reopen in June. Visitors reached nearly 1.9 million in October, far higher than April but still down 49% from a year earlier.

Yet unemployment stood at 14.8% in September, nearly twice the national average.

The casinos seem pretty crowded to a newcomer. But to the initiated, the city is deathly quiet.

Vegas thrives on crowds, with people jammed shoulder-to-shoulder from the sidewalks to the casinos.

Now, hotel rooms that normally go for $300 a night can now be had for $90.

Those discounted rooms are a bad sign for people like Flores. Though she has no great love of tourists - “I don’t think they know how hard we work” — she yearns for their return.

“If they don’t come to play,” she says, “we don’t have money.”