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Day laborers rattle Valley communities

Are sidewalks big enough for all?

Peter Ortiz The Arizona Republic Dec. 6, 2000

Felipe Islas awakes before sunrise and skips breakfast, leaving the one-bedroom apartment he shares with four men and walks to a sidewalk in Mesa 100 yards away.

Other men join him to wait for work.

Eight months have passed since the 29-year-old Mexican immigrant paid $800 to a coyote, or guide, to lead him across the Douglas border. Almost immediately he moved into his Mesa apartment complex near a corner that has drawn jornaleros, or day laborers, for more than 30 years.

Islas stays away from the other men and patiently waits for passing pickup trucks with offers of landscaping and construction jobs.

Nearly an hour has passed when a roofer draws a crowd of workers and holds up three fingers. Islas and two other men agree to a $7-an-hour job and jump into the truck.

Islas' American dream starts on a Mesa sidewalk.

It is shared by undocumented workers desperate for jobs and exploited by employers all too happy to hire them.

Those immigrants' dreams form Mervin Kerby's nightmare. Kerby, a Mesa resident and furniture store owner, considers Islas and the other day laborers fugitives who crossed a border meant to keep them out. Now, he says, they scare away customers, harass neighbors and lower the neighborhood's quality of life.

Kerby has the law on his side: The federal government officially brands Islas and other undocumented day laborers "illegal aliens."

But he doesn't have local law enforcement on his side: City officials fear civil rights violations if they shoo away the day laborers.

Moreover, neither the federal nor local law seems able to stop the demand for cheap help that draws day laborers to Broadway Road between Mesa Drive and Gilbert Road, or along many other busy thoroughfares in Valley communities.

As more and more day laborers take to the streets in search of work, some Mesa and other Valley residents are echoing concerns that resonate across the state and in nationwide areas like Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, New York, Los Angeles and Portland, Ore.: The same men hired to bolster a tight job market are seen as blight in the neighborhoods where they wait for work.

"Make them legal or send them back," said Kerby, who has cleared day laborers from his store's parking lot. "The city needs to make it illegal to solicit work from the streets."

A task force last month recommended that the Mesa City Council endorse a day labor center to draw workers and the employers who hire them. What Mesa eventually does will be watched closely by other Valley cities that also are eager to address the "day laborer problem."

Task force member Jacque Henry and other supporters of the center say it is a way to give the workers some dignity and refuge from angry residents who don't want them on the street. But Henry also says she knows the center may disguise a disturbing problem.

"That won't stop the racism, but might keep them out of sight. If we can help them become invisible, maybe people will stop complaining."

This is home

Day laborers have become a permanent part of Valley neighborhoods. In Mesa, they stand along the Broadway Corridor, including a Circle K where a security guard stands watch to keep them away from the parking lot even though they patronize the store.

In Chandler, they hang out along Arizona Avenue, between Fry and Pecos roads just south of downtown.

In Phoenix, they congregate at 36th Street and Thomas Road, or Cave Creek and Bell roads.

Many live in apartment complexes that are within walking distance of the sidewalks where they wait to be hired for jobs such as landscaping, yard work, tree trimming, block laying, ditch digging and roofing.

Their manual labor usually commands $6 to $7 an hour, better than the minimum wage they would earn at a fast-food restaurant. But in an unregulated workplace, undocumented day laborers say dishonest employers can and have taken advantage of their legal status. Islas once received only $20 for a seven-hour job. Others have complained of working up to two weeks with the promise of a lump-sum paycheck, only to be dropped off and abandoned at a gas station or convenience store.

Henry, a bilingual math teacher at Westwood High School in Mesa, has watched her neighbors turn cold whenever they see her day labor friends visit her home even though they live and raise families in the same neighborhoods where they wait for work.

Adrian Barraza, a task force member and former day laborer, knows the shame of waiting on the street for work and hopes a day labor center will offer workers job training and English lessons. Barraza says day laborers are following in the tradition of other immigrants who came to America from Europe decades ago.

"We need to hear their stories and to see more deeply inside of the person," he said. "That way we can know them and not judge from their appearance."

Are they criminals?

Others on the task force, such as Cameron Stewart, sympathize with Barraza, but think Latino task force members have let their ethnic ties blind them to the real issues.

Stewart and others contend that undocumented day laborers have no right to work and want the city to petition the federal government to make the workers legal before opening a center.

"Don't think I am some evil White guy, I'm not," Stewart said. "I don't want them in front of my building because it hurts my ability to make a living and feed my family."

Although Henry understands their concerns, she thinks it's ludicrous to label a man a criminal just because he crossed the border looking for work.

Henry joined the task force in behalf of day laborers who were too intimidated to come out and speak for themselves. She has taught their children and spent time in her kitchen preparing tamales from scratch with their families during holidays.

She has gotten to know the day laborers on a level that makes her cringe when she hears them called "aliens."

"The way it is generally used, 'alien,' it bothers me because I can't help but put a face on the epithet that they use," Henry said. "I just see them as human beings, and it bothers me that they do this."

Stewart said undocumented day laborers show a total disregard for U.S. sovereignty when they cross illegally and should not be rewarded with work.

But Pablo Alvarado, a day labor project coordinator in Los Angeles, warns that is a narrow view that further divides the community.

Alvarado's organization, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, contracts with that city to manage three day labor sites.

His group spoke to the task force about its efforts to help day laborers and make them an active part of the community.

"There are certain facts of life that go beyond certain manmade laws and one is the right to work," he said. "The workers are not going anywhere, and it is better that we learn to live with each other."

A long history

Today's day laborer population is an integral part of an economy that has long benefited from cheap labor from Mexican immigrants. From 1942 to 1964, Mexicans were recruited to fill agricultural jobs as part of a program that allowed them to live here part of the year as guest workers.

"Some people think we were invaded by these immigrants, and the point was we brought them here and profited mightily from their presence here," said David Hayes-Bautista, a professor at UCLA.

The migrant farm workers filled a need, but then decided to stay.

"What we wanted were workers and what we got are people," Hayes-Bautista said.

Many Mexican immigrants continued to flock to Arizona, where they became the backbone of the state's huge agricultural economy. But as farms disappeared, new job opportunities were born on urban sidewalks.

Although no one has been able to count the number of day laborers working in Arizona, officials say it is clear employers are still hungry for more workers.

"The fact is it is a very tight labor market, and because of low unemployment, there are good opportunities for those people to get jobs," said Dan Anderson, a spokesman for the state Department of Economic Security.

Construction trade associations, employers and unions all agree the need to fill jobs is not being met fast enough.

Chuck Ouellette, an organizer with the International Roofers Union, said day laborers are doing jobs that would otherwise go unfilled. He would like to see undocumented workers become legalized to avoid abuse from bad employers.

"You don1t see too many people jumping up and saying they want to do roofing in 110-degree weather," Ouellette said. "There are no people to fill these jobs, period."

Julie Pace, a lawyer representing businesses, agrees. "Right now our companies are losing money and contracts because we don't have the people to do the work," Pace said.

Islas left his home in the city of Tizayuca in Hidalgo with two of his brothers, four men and two coyote guides on April 30. Their biggest worries were snakes and immigration officers.

During his walk in the desert, Islas dreamed about sending $200 home every month to his parents and three siblings in school.

At 4 a.m. his group crawled under a fence and crossed the border, where it encountered two armed bandits who jumped from some bushes.

After taking everyone's money, the robbers wished the group well on the rest of its journey.

In Karl Millsaps' eyes, Islas became a criminal when he crossed the border.

Millsaps, 56, of Mesa, belongs to the Federation of American Immigration Reform, a national immigration group that has called for the arrest and deportation of undocumented immigrants.

He had been a regular at the task force meetings, wearing a tie emblazoned with the American flag and dutifully scribbling notes of the proceedings. He has kept a handful of White task force members abreast of his group's efforts to erase undocumented residents from American cities.

One of Millsaps' biggest concerns about a day labor center is that undocumented immigrants may start viewing Mesa as a destination point. He also worries they will attract criminals.

The Mesa Police Department's own studies, as well as testimony before the task force, show no indication that criminal activity increases where day laborers congregate.

But Millsaps is not convinced. He sees a "cultural clash" emerging where immigrants have settled and a disintegration of his American lifestyle.

"I am against the establishment of an illegal alien hiring hall because I don't like the idea of a wink or nod sweeping immigration laws under the rug," Millsaps said.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has expressed doubts to Mesa officials about the effectiveness of using local police to perform immigration duties.

In a letter to Mesa officials last May, the INS said it feared "that delegation of immigration enforcement authority to local officers would corrode the community/police relationship, diminish community safety, and likely exacerbate racial profiling."

Rough friendships

When Laurencio Martinez arrived in Mesa five years ago, he found friendly faces among day laborers who had also come from his hometown. Like other workers, Martinez's stint on the sidewalk led to a full-time job. He now works for $7 an hour welding metal trailers, while his wife, Rosa, works at a fast-food restaurant.

The couple reunited in 1999 after Martinez's wife and their three children crossed the border, and now share a one-bedroom apartment with other day laborers.

His smile and easygoing manner disguise the pain from the nasty looks and crude language he has encountered.

Still, he is undaunted.

"I did not come to rob," he said. "I came to work."

Henry's friendship with day laborers started to blossom when she took Spanish lessons 10 years ago to help her communicate better with the Mexican students in her algebra class.

She first met Laurencio Martinez when she visited his brother's apartment complex to help enroll his daughter in school.

At first the family did not know what to make of this White woman who spoke Spanish in a Southern accent. Friends of Martinez doubted her sincerity.

"They were suspicious of me because so many people have mistreated them," Henry said.

Henry was one of the few Whites to be invited into an apartment complex that had become a refuge offering emotional and financial support to day laborers and their families.

When Martinez's mother was suffering from kidney disease, his neighbors pitched in to pay for treatment. His neighbors have also helped one another raise money whenever medical emergencies arise.

Henry has paid a price for her friendship. Neighbors who did not like seeing Mexican families visit her home for pool parties or cookouts no longer greeted her with a smile.

"I had neighbors who thought it was totally inappropriate," Henry said.

Antonio Villa stood up in front of Henry and the rest of the task force in June to let them know he was not someone to fear.

The former day laborer, like many before him, won over an employer who eventually hired him as a full-time landscaper.

"It is embarrassing to stand on a street corner, but it is a necessity," Villa said.

Villa rents a house where he lives with his wife and three children. He does not condone day laborers who break the law or cause trouble.

Though undocumented, he doesn't believe that should determine his worth, and he takes pride in the neighborhood he now calls home.

"In the beginning, it was very difficult," Villa said. "But now I feel like I am a part of the community."