Day Laborers Have Become an Easy Target for Anti-Immigrant Vigilantes
Ubaldo Hernández is a builder and skilled tradesman who's been coming to a Hollywood day laborer center for 15 years.
On a Monday afternoon two weeks after the election, Ubaldo Hernández, a 67-year-old day laborer from Guatemala, was waiting for work at the Hollywood Community Job Center when he noticed a man across the street taking pictures. Then the man started to make his way toward the center, located in a fenced-in area on the shoulder of the road behind the Home Depot.
Hernández was sitting with two other workers at an outdoor picnic table. Technically the center is closed on Mondays, when the site coordinator has the day off. But the winter slowdown in L.A. started early this year, and Hernández and the others, who hadn't worked in days, came and opened the center themselves.
At first, Hernández thought that lingering at the center on the odd chance of securing work was about to pay off. The man crossing the street, he remembers thinking, must be a prospective employer.
"I told my compañeros, 'Look, he's coming to hire workers for a job,'" Hernández recalls.
The man was tallish and white, with streaks of gray in his hair. He walked past the workmen, not acknowledging them, and headed straight for the construction trailer where the office is. Since the site coordinator had the day off, no one was in the office. So Hernández approached the doorway to see if he could help.
He says he saw the man leaning over the day's attendance sheets in the office and using his cellphone to photograph the names of day laborers. When the man realized he had been discovered, he brushed past Hernández and ran to get into a van on Fernwood Avenue; the waiting driver then sped away.
According to other workers at the center that day, the van's rear license plate was covered with a piece of paper.
Hernández says that he stood frozen in place. More than 20 years ago, he fled the armed conflict in Guatemala, which killed hundreds of thousands in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. He was shaken, and his instinct told him the intruder was an undercover cop.
Site coordinator Danny Chavez convinced Hernández that the police in L.A. don't behave that way and that the intruder wasn't a cop. Both Chavez and the center's director say they believe the man and the driver most likely were anti-immigration vigilantes on a spying mission.
Day laborer organizers in L.A. say the incident at the Hollywood center is part of a backlash against day laborers since the election. President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to deport from the United States as many as 3 million undocumented immigrants. And the president-elect's inciting rhetoric — calling Mexicans drug dealers, murderers and rapists — is emboldening vigilantism against day laborers across the country. Though not all day laborers are undocumented, many are, and the visibility that comes from the act of seeking work in public places makes them the subject of policy disagreements about the enforcement of federal immigration law.
"They're the visible face of the issue of migration," says UCLA Labor Center project director Victor Narro, who helped to found day laborer centers in L.A. in the late 1990s. "They're out there in public, which makes them easy targets for anti-immigrant sentiment. They're really at the front line of the immigration debate in this country."
Most of the threats and acts of intimidation are aimed at the most vulnerable of workers, those not affiliated with a day laborer center, who gather informally on street corners. Organizers noted a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the days immediately following the election. In the Fashion District, two men in a car stopped at a corner to photograph and threaten day laborers who load or unload delivery trucks of merchandise. In Cypress Park, men shouted threats at workers gathered at the entrance to Home Depot. In Hollywood, immediately after the election, a passenger spit at workers from a passing car on Sunset Boulevard.
Hernández, a builder and skilled tradesman who has been coming to the day laborers center for 15 years, says he has never seen anything like it. Three weeks later, the incident still distresses him. "People have entered here crazy before, high on drugs, things like that," he says. "But racists coming to investigate names? Never."
The city of Los Angeles funds seven day laborer centers across the city. They are landmarks of the bitter immigration controversy of the late 1990s in California. In 1994, then-governor Pete Wilson advocated for the ballot measure known as Proposition 187, which eventually passed, prohibiting undocumented state residents' access to municipal services such as health care and public education. In stark contrast to such exclusionary policy, the day laborer centers, with the city's backing, were created to provide laborers with training and stability — a safer, sounder livelihood than that available to workers who convene on the dozens of street corners around the city.
Looking for work on Sunset Boulevard
In recent years, local ordinances and other efforts designed to criminalize day laborers have been challenged in federal court, and deemed unconstitutional. It is now a clearly established right under the First Amendment to congregate in public areas to attempt to land work. Yet day laborer centers are under greater threat than at any time since their founding and are struggling to stay afloat financially.
The Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California, or IDEPSCA, operates four day laborer centers in L.A. IDEPSCA, a member organization of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, represents almost 1,000 workers at centers in Wilmington, Cypress Park, the downtown Fashion District and Hollywood. Its directors believe the increase in vigilante activity and acts of intimidation against day laborers presages a rise in government efforts to violate day laborers' rights.
"Regardless of who won [the election], we knew we had to be prepared to fight detentions and deportations," says Maegan Ortiz, executive director of IDEPSCA. "What's new is the scale and how aggressive it is. ... Since midnight on the 9th [of November] until Inauguration Day, it's really about preparing for worst-case scenarios."
Day laborers are at the other end of the immigration spectrum from Dreamers, the young people covered by President Obama's executive action known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Dreamers are often well assimilated into American culture (many arrived here as young children) and are visible, vocal activists, whether on college campuses or at organized protests. More than 740,000 Dreamers have obtained temporary legal status since 2012, but day laborers have remained in limbo. Like millions of other undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States without a criminal history, day laborers are neither priority targets for removal nor prime beneficiaries of reform.
"I think one of the challenges is that day laborers aren't sexy immigrants," Ortiz says. "They're not the college-educated Dreamer, the child of immigrants. Or more recently, the narrative about keeping families together. Most day laborers don't fit so neatly into that narrative. So many are men who have left families in their home country."
A half-hour before sunrise on a recent Saturday, workers at the Cypress Park Community Job Center are a taciturn lot. Against the darkness, the fatigue and the chill of the wind, they bury their hands into coat pockets and draw the hoods of their heavy cotton sweatshirts tightly around their faces.
Each man signs his name on the attendance sheet and takes a ticket from the roll. Each in turn then rips his ticket in half and drops half in the empty coffee bucket on the table and stuffs the other half in the pocket of his heavy work pants. Many rode two buses to get here from places like South Gate, Compton or Bell, where they live in modest homes or shelters.
December's rain and cold make outdoor jobs less plentiful, and this shortage of work is their chief concern. They're less worried about the polarizing billionaire who will be sworn in as president of the United States on Jan. 20.
Trump is like the rumor of a storm — Hurricane Trump, as one Mexican worker dubbed him. The sense of anxiety is there, but the workers have more immediate storms to weather, like the downpour of the day before, which soaked the ground, making this the coldest morning of the season.
At the Cypress Park Community Job Center, the job raffle gets going at 6:30 a.m.
The call to la rifa, the job raffle, comes right on time, at 6:30 a.m. The coordinator at the center, a young activist named Luis Rivas, calls out "¡rifa! ¡rifa! ¡rifa!," and eight men in knit caps and hooded sweatshirts roust themselves and form a line at the opening in the chain-link fence.
When Home Depot wanted to build a store in Cypress Park in 2001, the city of L.A. conditioned its approval, in part, on an on-site day laborer center. The center is two construction trailers and a piecemeal assortment of outdoor furniture located nearly out of sight in the back corner of the parking lot. It is set at a desolate crossroads in the city, in the shadow of the Golden Gate Freeway overpass, on the east bank of the L.A. River near the railroad tracks.
The day laborers in L.A. are a kind of reverse image of the white, working-class Trump voter.
Like them, they often operate at the fringes of society, excluded from the urban dialogue. They're an international cross section of migrant workers and some native-born Americans, many of whom are down on their luck.
And though the day laborers too believe their lot is worsening, they have a different culprit to blame.
"Things are getting more difficult since Trump," says Pablo Cruz, 53, a day laborer and permanent U.S. resident born in Mexico. "His supporters see us as another color, a different race, and they treat us differently."
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Rivas reaches his arm into the bucket for a ticket stub and calls out the number: "378!" The man with the winning ticket steps forward and hands it to Rivas, who writes the winner's name on a dry-erase board. Rivas repeats the action three times; the raffle is over. But for the others, the wait begins.
The four raffle winners assume cleanup duties. "You see guys sweeping, you know you're late," says Reynaldo Carachure, 36, one of a half-dozen center members who arrives shortly after the raffle.
Beginning at first light, a pickup truck will pull into the lot and the driver will request help to fix a leak in the roof or build a retaining wall, plant a garden, rewire an alarm system or remodel a kitchen. The raffle winners get first dibs, unless the employer requests a specific worker. Pay rates vary depending on the job, but for manual labor of this type, the starting rate is $15 per hour. Some of the men have apprenticed in the building trades and can build a house from the foundation up.
José Luis Muñoz, 64, is one such worker, an immigrant from Mexico City whose skill as a builder the other men at the center hold in high regard. But Muñoz arrived late to the day's job raffle, so he has plenty of time to kill. While he waits, he isn't shy about sharing his opinion of Donald Trump: "I'm not afraid of him, and I don't respect him, so what do I care what he says?"
Muñoz is one of many of the workers at the center who are in their 50s or 60s and have been day laborers in Los Angeles for more than 20 years. Collectively, they have an encyclopedic recollection of immigration policy in L.A. going back decades.
José Luis Muñoz has been a day laborer for 20 years.
Raúl Mendoza, 53, was born in Acapulco, Mexico, and lives in East L.A. He says that immigration agents used to raid the U-Haul rental store on Fletcher Drive in Atwater Village in the late 1980s. He also says LAPD used to write tickets to day laborers for looking for work. "They told us we had to keep walking or they'd give us a ticket for obstructing traffic," he says.
Muñoz says federal immigration officials raided a taco stand around the corner from his house in Compton in 2008. The customers and the owner were arrested, he says. "That's been going on for years," Muñoz says. "Trump is only resuming from where Obama left off."
To join the day laborer center as a member, a worker must provide proof of ID and residence (a letter from a homeless shelter counts) and agree to follow the rules: no alcohol or drugs. No fighting. Respect la rifa. Finish every job. The centers keep records of which workers have specialized training — who are the plumbers, roofers, electricians. They also ensure that an employer holds up his or her end of the bargain.
The centers' structure and values are attractive to older workers with more experience, who resent the young esquineros, or corner boys, who seldom affiliate with the center and will compete for work while accepting lesser pay. "Out there it's the law of the jungle," says Reynaldo, 64, who did not give his last name for fear of being deported. "The strongest pushes his way in and gets the job."
The centers tend to be located out of sight, while the workers on the corner enjoy greater visibility. But on the corner it is every man for himself.
One weekday afternoon at the entrance to the Home Depot in Cypress Park, a pickup stops and the esquineros throng. They ask for $100 for a day's work, then lower it to $80. The man in the truck insists on $70, and when the truck drives away, two day laborers are on board.
"They see many of us, so they pay us little," says Crispín Morelos, 61, originally of Puebla, Mexico, who watched the truck drive off. "We don't want to lose the job opportunity. So we go, even for cheap."
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck has distanced the department from federal immigration policies, saying it is not the job of police officers to work in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security on deportation efforts. A special order signed by then-chief Daryl Gates in 1979 prohibits officers from stopping a person to inquire about immigration status.
In L.A., the line between jurisdictions is clear. "We don't care about people's immigration status," says Guillermo Galvan, a spokesman for LAPD's Hollenbeck Division, which held a recent community forum on the issue in Boyle Heights. "We want people to feel comfortable to come forward and report a crime. We don't enforce immigration law."
Under Chief Beck, the department also stopped turning over to federal agents for deportation people arrested for low-level crimes.
But immigrant advocates in L.A. wonder what will happen if Trump redefines what is a removable offense. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has had unrestricted access to the databases of local law enforcement since 2015, when President Obama made such data sharing the main focus of his domestic enforcement policy, known as the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP). But where President Obama made it the priority for ICE to remove people arrested for serious crimes, early signs indicate that Trump could broaden the definition of "criminal alien" to include any undocumented person arrested for any crime.
One of Trump's main advisers on immigration, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, accidentally revealed as much in a memorable gaffe during a November meeting with the president-elect. Kobach had allowed himself to be photographed holding the position paper of his recommendations to ICE showing face-up, with some of the ideas in the document clearly visible; among them was redefining what constitutes a "criminal alien."
Jessica Karp Bansal, an attorney representing immigrants in a class action suit against the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, says discretion over the type of crime that warrants transfer to ICE custody rests with the president. "Trump will inherit that machinery," Bansal says. "He could change those priorities. He could start issuing detainers for anybody who's arrested for any reason."
Under Kobach's proposal, violations as minor as selling food on the street without a permit — or even congregating at the entrance to a Home Depot to seek work — could become deportable offenses, according to IDEPSCA's Ortiz. "The talk is that only criminals will be targeted," she says. "But who decides?"
IDEPSCA is preparing legal clinics to support members of the day laborer centers who are at risk for arrest and deportation. It is training members to document incidents of worker intimidation and harassment. It is organizing trauma workshops for members and their families. And for the first time in its existence, IDEPSCA is preparing for the worst-case scenario: targeted raids on the corners where day laborers gather to seek work.
In addition, the centers are attempting to meet the increase in need for their services at a time when significant funding cuts have reduced their budget by half. As recently as 2013, all seven of the day laborer centers in L.A. were sharing an annual budget of $1.5 million from a combination of local and federal sources. Today, the centers' annual budget is down to $750,000, which comes exclusively from the city's general fund.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has withheld from Los Angeles millions of dollars in federal revenue since 2014 due to economic decisions the city made during the lean years of economic recession from 2007 through 2010. The city diverted federal money designated for brick-and-mortar improvements and spent it on services, city officials say. When the federal government punished the city by withholding funds, the day laborer centers were left without revenue for nearly two months; they eliminated all staff and nearly closed.
The city eventually stepped in and backfilled the cuts to keep the day laborer centers afloat. Each year since then has been a fight for survival until the eleventh hour of budget talks, says Guadalupe Garcia, administrative manager of the day laborer program for IDEPSCA.
"At this point it's more dead than alive," says Violeta Donis, 45, a domestic employee from Guatemala and member of the Hollywood center, describing how the funding cuts have affected the center's vitality. "Before, it was more active, it was promoted more."
Even in the combative days since the election, as lawmakers in L.A. prepare to meet Trump's threat of deportation, day laborer centers are on the outside looking in.
L.A. City Councilmember Gil Cedillo, an avowed supporter of the day laborer centers who calls them "a contemporary hiring hall," acknowledges that the issue of funding is an annual struggle. "It's been really problematic," he says. "But we in the city are committed to protect the funding of those centers, and legally to protect all immigrants in the city."
On a weekday morning last month, at the back corner of the Home Depot parking lot in Cypress Park, day laborer organizers held a training session covering what to do in the event that immigration pays a home visit. The training required volunteers, and a group of four day laborers acted out a role-playing exercise.
Lloyd Johnston, 61, a resident at Bell Shelter in South L.A., played the immigration agent in the vein of the Big Bad Wolf, trying to convince the other three workers to open their doors to him. The role-play was lighthearted, but the workers in the back rows of the audience were attentive, and not all of them were laughing.
A worker raised his hand and asked a question. The National Day Laborer Organizing Network facilitator answered him in Spanish: "You can ask for a warrant, but remember, ICE is capable of saying or doing anything to gain entry. Don't open the door. Don't let them in."
Four young esquineros walked over from the corner, wearing tattered baseball caps and old sneakers. They sat crowded together on the curb behind the last row of seats, separate from the members of the center but within earshot of the presentation.
Day laborers are among the immigrants most likely to be targeted by the Trump administration, according to legal advocates in L.A. But they may also be among the most prepared to defend themselves.
The National Day Laborer Organizing Network has taken a leading role in fighting back against the use of police and sheriffs as front-line deportation agents, says Chris Newman, legal director and general counsel for the group. NDLON has led the campaign to get President Obama to end his secure-communities program, which allowed local police to enforce immigration law and let ICE assign staff full-time to L.A. County jails.
"People regardless of immigration status have a First Amendment right to seek work in constitutionally protected spaces like sidewalks," Newman says. "Any government agency, whether at the local level or through federal ICE agents, that seeks to violate those rights, we will likely face them in federal courts if necessary."
At the IDEPSCA day laborer centers, there are two sure bets for the spring: One is that work will pick up when the rain stops. The other is that the sense of anxiety with Trump in the White House isn't going away.
"We've organized boycotts and protests, the effects of which were felt," says Mendoza, a member of the Cypress Park center. He says the anti-immigrant climate in L.A. has changed for good and doesn't think Trump's election will make a difference. "Maybe in other states Trump's election will make a difference, but not here, in Los Angeles."
He says L.A. will fight back.
"It's politics. He has to please a certain class of people," Mendoza says. "There are a lot of people who support us, too. We've been through this before."
Raúl Mendoza says agents used to raid the U-Haul store in Atwater Village.
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