An immigrant’s struggles to survive in Vegas

LAS VEGAS (AP) — 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 as a waitress 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 in a little over a month as the pandemic spread. The state’s unemployment rocketed to 28 percent, the worst in the nation and a level not seen even during the Great Depression. Every day, thousands of cars lined up at emergency food distribution centers, the lines stretching for block after block, past pawn shops and casinos and law offices.

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 paying the rent, buying gas, getting enough food. Like millions of other people 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 to Vegas on The Associated Press’ road trip across America, a journey that has taken us to nearly a dozen states, talking to people who are wrestling with the seismic shifts of 2020.

A single line in a newspaper article 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…

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