Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Day labor sites are hot spots in immigration fight

Advocates offer support to workers; others aim to expose illegal status
01:47 AM CST on Monday, March 5, 2007
By DIANNE SOLÍS / The Dallas Morning News

GARLAND – Tucked between railroad tracks and a cemetery is a site that is part of a national debate over blue-collar workers outfitted with sturdy work boots but flimsy work documents.

On one side are U.S. citizens who want to expose and shame employers who hire illegal immigrant workers.

On the other are Mexican diplomats and U.S. advocates who want to ensure that both legal and illegal immigrant workers get a fair shake.

And in the middle is the city of Garland, along with others in North Texas that operate day labor centers to control the traffic chaos from workers swarming vehicles driven by prospective employers.

Around the nation, day labor sites for casual laborers have operated for years with little fanfare.

But increasingly, they're flash points in communities coast to coast, as residents and anti-immigrant groups take matters into their own hands and nonimmigrant workers complain that they're getting pushed out of jobs. One legislator has proposed that cities be banned from building or operating day labor sites.

Recently, the Mexican Consulate in Dallas launched a know-your-rights campaign at day labor sites after a teenage worker at one site was picked up by a man pretending to be an employer and was subsequently turned over to immigration authorities. The Mexican diplomats want to explain to workers that federal minimum wage and occupational safety and health laws apply to everyone – regardless of status.

"These people are so vulnerable," says Eduardo Rea, who works in protective services for the Mexican Consulate in Dallas, which serves one of the nation's largest Mexican communities.

Clark Kirby, the state director for the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, said his group wants illegal immigration curtailed and that day labor sites "aid and abet" illegal immigrants.

The recent case of the 18-year-old from Guanajuato spiked anxieties among diplomats and day laborers already worried about the wave of immigration raids in Texas and elsewhere in the U.S.

The young man ended up in deportation proceedings and is now back in his home state of Guanajuato, said Mr. Rea and José Jimenez, leader in the Dallas-area association of day laborers. When his parents were notified several days later, the family was already in a panic, Mr. Rea said.

"We were calling the coroner, the police, the hospitals," Mr. Rea said. "The father was practically crying. So we want people to know if you go with someone, take down the names of the license plates and place a phone call about where you are going."

Not checking documents

At the Garland site, which opened in 2001 with city funds, signs attempt to deal with polarized emotions over immigration.

"The services of this day labor center are free for U.S. citizens and permanent residents. If you are not sure of your legal status, please contact the nearest office of immigration," reads one sign in both English and Spanish.

Another sign reads: "Contractors are responsible for verifying that the workers with whom they are contracting from this site are in compliance with federal immigration law."

The center boasts an office, bathrooms, and a roofed patio with concrete benches. A paved parking lot prevents traffic chaos that envelops day laborers at a popular Dallas site.

Garland city spokeswoman Dorothy White says the city financed the center with the Texas Workforce Commission, because of the "street hazards" created by day laborers.

The cities of Fort Worth, Plano and McKinney also operate sites. And though Dallas doesn't fund any similar sites, there are several informal day laborer venues in the city.

As for immigration law: Officials in the cities that run the centers say they're not in the business of verifying work documents. They leave that to the employers.

McKinney city spokesman Steve Hill says he tells those who might complain about illegal immigrants using the site that he's "not willing to assume that all the people who are there are illegal."

At the Plano center, where about 200 workers gather each workday, staffer Rudy Guerra notes that federal immigration law effectively exempts some employers from sanctions and document-checking if it involves the employment of casual, domestic labor for a sporadic period of time.

"We don't check for documents," Mr. Guerra said.

Such policies draw the ire of the Minutemen, who showed up at the Garland site several times last winter and videotaped workers and contractors. Mr. Kirby, a retired Arlington businessman, said he plans more watches in coming weeks.

"The cities say it is not their responsibility to check to see if the workers are here in the country legally," Mr. Kirby said. But it could be construed that cities are violating immigration laws that prohibit "aiding and abetting" of illegal immigrants, he said. "I don't believe there are any test cases against cities ... but, perhaps, that is coming."

The group also targets contractors, Mr. Kirby said, sending them "encouragement letters" to follow U.S. immigration law that since 1986 has made it illegal for employers to knowingly hire an illegal immigrant. Group members even check to see if contractors are properly registered and paying state taxes. They do so when a contractor vehicle, with a company logo, pulls up to a day labor site.

"Aside from hiring illegal aliens and depressing wages, some are not paying taxes," Mr. Kirby said.

Work for cheap

At the Plano day labor site off Central Expressway recently, some nonimmigrant workers said Mexicans simply work too cheap. Mexicans and other Hispanics get preference, even though a lottery system tries to establish that the first in line gets called at the 6:30 a.m. start time, the workers said.

A sheet with worker names and their skills, from landscaping to housecleaning, hung outside the blue and white day labor office.

"Contractors who request Hispanics are messing me up," said one black worker, one of a handful still there at noon with no job offers. He gave his name only as Alex.

Patrick Orsburn, a blond and blue-eyed construction worker who carries a carpenter's belt loaded with tools, agreed.

"It is the employers who show favoritism," he said. "And that is because the Mexicans will work cheap."

Mr. Orsburn said he stays abreast of the immigration debate.

Deportations of illegal immigrants from Mexico would be wrong, especially given Texas history and the fact that "Mexicans have always been here," Mr. Orsburn said.

But, he said, "there are a lot of us in the construction industry who are getting pushed out of our jobs."

Wage theft

Mexican Consulate officials say that the No. 1 problem for day laborers they talk to is wage theft.

At an informal day labor site in Dallas near Harry Hines Boulevard recently, hands shot up in the air as Mexican Consulate officials asked workers ask if they had ever been stiffed for wages.

"Wage theft is so prevalent," said Mr. Rea, as he passed out a CD detailing U.S. laws and the importance of worksite safety. "They actually tell people, 'You are illegal and I am not going to pay you.' "

Day laborers in the Los Angeles area organized more than five years ago, led by Salvadoran immigrant Pablo Alvarado. He now heads the National Association of Day Laborers, which fights such issues as wage theft and anti-solicitation ordinances.

"I think day laborers are seen as symbols for illegal immigration," said Chris Newman, legal director for the national group. "The mood and misconception in this country is that the undocumented worker has no rights. They think that a person without papers can be mistreated with impunity."

To prove his point, Mr. Newman cites a study that found that about half of day laborers were deprived of wages in the last two months. The survey of nearly 2,700 workers released last year was done by professors at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of California at Los Angeles.

After the Minutemen began videotaping contractors and workers in Garland, some workers organized into an offshoot of a national jornalero, or day laborer, group.

Mr. Jimenez, leader of the Dallas-area group, tries to drum up support at the consulates of Mexico, Salvador and Honduras.

"Many of the contractors think because of our migratory status we have no rights," said Mr. Jimenez, a self-described jack of all construction trades who admits to being in the U.S. illegally. "But they are wrong. There are laws that protect us, too."

But getting enforcement is tricky because many lawyers simply won't take a wage theft case that involves what attorneys view as a pittance, $80 to $100, Mr. Jimenez said.

"They should not treat us as animals," Mr. Jimenez said.