Laboring for the American Dream

Photo by Maria Cristina Malo

On Saturday I participated in the Day Laborer Outreach event that Border Angels coordinates once a month. We headed out around 10:30 with food, drinks, snacks, and several flyers with information varying from health services to legal services and general information about the workers’ rights.

Immigrant day laborers make up 0.2 percent of the workforce in the State of California, or 40,000 workers – 120,000 nationally. About 80 percent of day laborers are undocumented (California Economic Policy, 2007). They typically begin to gather at corners and sidewalks close to auto parts stores, home improvement stores, and gas stations at 5:00 am. They stand there waiting for hours hoping to be able to obtain a day’s worth of work. Many stand there for hours not having eaten, “ni si quiera un café o un pedaso de pan.” Not even a cup of coffee or a piece of bread. After noon, those still standing around hoping for a few hours of work begin to feel frustrated and anxious, even desperate for they cannot afford to go a day without work, especially if they’ve already missed out on several days of work.

Many of the workers live day-to-day and the job opportunities are unpredictable, leaving them to face extreme job insecurity and volatile monthly earnings, which means they can’t really plan for a stable future when they don’t even know if they’ll make enough money to pay their rent this month, or eat. A day laborer would have to work every day of the month to earn approximately $2,000 dollars, and of course this doesn’t account for wage theft and non-productive seasons. On average, day laborers work 2-3 days a week, with annual earnings that rarely exceed $15,000 a year.

As I talk to Manuel about his rights and organizations he can go to for support, he continues to scan the street and the Home Depot parking lot across the way for any potential solicits by contractors. He tries to be respectful and listen attentively to what I have to say, but there is an underlying restlessness that comes with hustling for work.

Imagine the anxiety of being taken to different work sites everyday, not sure what kind of people you will encounter; whether you’ll experience humiliation, harassment, or threats of being deported at the end of the day. You show up to unfamiliar places, again and again, in hopes of obtaining a day’s work, competing with 20 other men as you approach the next truck, begging for work and knowing that an opportunity for you is a day’s loss of work for your comrade. Imagine being at work sites where you don’t know anyone, and you don’t even speak the language to ask for a glass of water. You work through the day not knowing when the day’s work will end, not knowing when, if at all, you’ll be offered something to eat. These conditions can be emotionally traumatizing, causing degrading feelings of self-worth compiled by the anti-immigrant sentiments of this country.

Manuel has been working as a day laborer for almost twenty years. Statistics show that some 42% of day laborers have been living in the United States for more than 20 years. While they wish to find more stable employment, many are unable do to undocumented status, lack of jobs, and lack of English or job skills. For Manuel, it has been a dream to one day obtain his contractor license and build a small business. He is in the process of “legalizing” his status and is excited about improving his English; I could tell when I saw a glimmer in his eyes as he continued to scan the cars that passed by.

Photo from The Linesch Firm Article Archives

Don Victor talked about his hometown, Toluca, approximately two hours away from Mexico City, with nostalgia and longing. He described the snow-capped volcano, Nevado de Toluca or Xinantécatl, which sits as the backdrop of the city, thinking about not having seen his family in over 15 years.   I wondered what fueled his motivation to continue to do such arduous work, separated from those he loves, and isolated in a country where being an immigrant and not speaking English is considered a crime. I would have asked him, except, in the middle of our conversation, he took a phone call, which seemed to be a job lead.

Then I met Don Sergio, a spunky, feisty older gentleman. He’d been doing this day-laborer hustle for over 25 years. He talked about being able to travel back and forth to Mexico and described all the places he had visited, like a real connoisseur of his country. But mostly he talked about the importance of getting an education, making sure we were all learning a skill to get ahead and not have to do hard labor for the rest of our lives. “Especialmente las nuevas generaciones.” Especially the younger generations.

Moments before, one of the Border Angel volunteers had been harassed by a man who asked her why she was “out here helping these illegal aliens.” He was very aggressive and proceeded to say Trump would win before leaving. He also asked the coordinator, “Why are you helping them – you’re White?” The volunteer was quite shaken up, and Don Sergio, who had witnessed the interaction, began to tell her that she needed to stand up for herself and not let people take advantage of her or push her around. He then went on to entertain us by giving accounts of times when contractors tried to intimidate him with insults such as, “Facken Mexican,” or “Estuped Alien” and he’d respond by saying, “No, fack you gringo, I no facken Mexican.”

He reminded me so much of my grandmother who toiled the fields along the central valley of California for over 14 years, and by the time she became elderly, had resolved to not take crap from anyone.   She never learned to speak or write in English, but learning the fundamental cuss words like “beetch, fack you, and estuped uss-ole,” gave her a great sense of empowerment and satisfaction, like it seemed to give Don Sergio as his chest and shoulders expanded and his spine erected tall.

Ninety-five percent of immigrant day laborers have reported suffering a violation. Seventy percent report their jobs to be unsafe or hazardous. They aren’t properly safety-trained, they don’t have any worker’s  compensation or even health insurance, so any accident at work will force them to run with the expenses, especially if they are undocumented, as they don’t have access to healthcare services. If thy die, there is no one to pay or to be held responsible. Day laborers and farmworkers are the folks that work under the harshest and most extreme conditions, but even then, they accept what they do in hopes of a better life.

Photo by Robin Rep

Wage abuse and theft is one of the biggest issues immigrant day laborers have to contend with. Often heard of are stories in which day laborers are not only not paid, but rather than being driven back to their pick-up location, the contractors will call ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to deport the workers.

These men are invisible and have very little to no recourse. They don’t know how to get services or who to turn to for advice and protection from predator contractors, and this is what makes this population so vulnerable. This is why the day laborer outreach work that Border Angels does is so imperative to protect the human rights of these workers.

The workers are financially insecure and because of their desperate need for money, will take almost any job at any wage. For many of them “something is better than nothing.” Workers are willing to toil doing the most undesirable jobs and rarely complain or argue, conditions under which most Americans would not work. The workers disappear at the end of the job; there is no HR hassle, no earned sick leave or vacation, no worker’s comp, no minimum wage to abide by or over-time regulations. Day laborers are easy to acquire, easy to get rid of, and easy to replace.

The laborer in the video below recounts of a time when a woman who took him to lay down a concrete slab offered him a job. He figured she’d pay him $100 for the day, which is a bargain for this type of work.

If you’ve ever laid down cement, you will know it is vary arduous work. If the area has not been prepped, this may entail clearing out grass, rocks, shrubs, and even old concrete, which takes a tremendous amount of physical strength and energy. Then there is evening out the area, filling in the area with stones as the subbase, laying down rebar, and preparing a wooden perimeter. As if all this work isn’t already taxing, mixing cement in itself is very physically demanding, even with a mixer, as you have to be able to lift the gravel, sand, and cement into the mixer, which can mean carrying anywhere from 50 to 100 pound loads, pouring the mix into a wheelbarrow, and wheeling it at a fast pace – all of this requires very heavy lifting.

He’d been working all morning and by mid-day he asked the woman if she had any water or food he could have, to which she asked him if he had any money to purchase those items. Forty-four percent of day laborers reported being denied food, water, and breaks while on the job (Center for the Study of Urban Poverty). At the end of the workday, she only paid him $40 dollars.

Ninety-five percent of migrant day laborers have suffered some kind of labor rights violation. Sporadic job opportunities, humiliating treatment, wage abuse and theft, and no one to turn to for protection, can leave many of these workers feeling lonely and like failures, many times going home feeling defeated and hopeless not knowing when they will rise above these oppressive circumstances.

At the day laborer soliciting spot we visited, I got the opportunity to meet a couple of guys from Cuba who had just arrived in San Diego three weeks before.  They have no family nor friends here, and they cited other workers as the source of information about day labor jobs.  One of the young men had a degree in psychology and was a therapist earning $30 a month back in Cuba.   This wasn’t even allowing him and his family to scrape by, so he made the difficult decision to leave his country.  He said he wasn’t sure how much better life would be here, but he owed it to his family to try.

Immigrants come here in hopes of finding a better life, one lived with dignity and pride. Those who make the perilous trek across hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles facing violence, hunger, and even death, do so because it is their last chance of survival. They don’t come here envisioning to stand on corners searching for job opportunities under precarious conditions and suffering through the type of domination and exploitation many of the day laborers experience.  But they do so because they have grit and an indomitable spirit of determination.


Sources and further readings:




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