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INS threatens fines for those who hire illegal laborers

Agency stakes out gathering spots as Valley cities consider job centers

Elvia Díaz
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 28, 2000

The immigration service in Phoenix is warning contractors against hiring undocumented day laborers as the city considers ways to assist the growing clusters of men lined along sidewalks waiting for a day's work.

Already the warnings are taking a toll on many laborers in north Phoenix who had been getting constant work.

"I've worked only two days since last week," said Rubén Fuentes, a native of Tijuana. At the break of dawn Tuesday, the 20-year-old Fuentes joined dozens of others at the corner of Greenway Road and 29th Street to wait for someone to pick them up.

"It's getting harder," he added.

Contractors could face fines of up to $1,000 for each occurrence if they fail to fill out the proper immigration forms by the end of the workday, said Victor Brower, deputy assistant district director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Phoenix.

"It's illegal to hire undocumented immigrants," Brower said, emphasizing that if contractors knowingly employ undocumented workers, fines could then go up to $2,500.

Brower said he isn't implying that all day laborers are undocumented. His office concluded that many of the contractors picking them up in north Phoenix had failed to fill out the required immigration documents.

Dozens of contractors were recently warned of the fines, he said. Brower's office targeted the Palomino neighborhood in north Phoenix because of constant complaints the immigration office received about day laborers, he said.

Brower wouldn't discuss the details of the surveillance work. He noted his office tracked down contractors that failed to fill out the necessary forms through the license plate on vehicles used to pick up the laborers.

Caught between angry businesses that want the day laborers off their property and demands for cheap labor that attract immigrants, Valley cities are looking at possible solutions.

Day laborers carry out much of the Valley's landscaping, yard work and roofing, said Ramón Guerrero, a former laborer who is pushing the city to set up a center for them.

More than 100 men normally congregate at the corner of Greenway Road and 29th Street in north Phoenix. Many live in the area, but others have learned the spot is popular among contractors, Guerrero said. Smaller clusters line Bell Road from 32nd to 26th streets in front of fast-food restaurants.

Phoenix, like Mesa, is considering setting up a job center in the Palomino neighborhood, where hundreds of day laborers gather at street corners hoping to get work.

The thought of a warm place brought smiles to Alberto Obeso, a 43-year-old Mexican immigrant who stood quivering in the cold Tuesday morning at the corner of Greenway Road and 26th Street.

"A center would be very nice," said Obeso, who says he has done everything from landscaping to plumbing since he arrived in Phoenix six months ago. "The pay is good, but competition is hard."

Getting work is a constant struggle, explained Ignacio Méndez, 54. A truck pulled over and dozens of men immediately jumped onto it, pleading to be chosen. After pushing and pulling, one or two ended up with the job.

"I have seven children to feed," said Méndez, adding that he gets paid $50 to $70 in cash for a day's work.

Jerome Miller, assistant neighborhood services director for Phoenix, said the city has taken the first steps to grapple with issues involving day laborers.

About a dozen city officials took a trip at the end of October to Los Angeles to learn how to set up a day laborer center, Miller said.

Most recently, city staff members and immigration workers met with hundreds of day laborers in north Phoenix to discuss a solution to what some consider a public nuisance. Others consider the laborers an essential part of the Valley's workforce.

Local businesses have increasingly become irate with the presence of the day laborers in the Palomino neighborhood, Miller said.

"Our biggest concern is safety," he said, adding that trucks could be dangerous when they constantly pull over next to large groups of men eager to hop on board.

If Phoenix and Mesa ultimately decide to set up a center for the day laborers, immigration officials won't interfere, Brower said.

However, contractors will still be required to comply with immigration laws, he said.