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Violence against day laborers grows

Local group takes action to draw attention to plight of Portland’s day laborers.

By Abby Sewell

On Jan. 27, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) called for a national day of action to protest the increasing rates of violence committed against day laborers in the past year. Day laborers, or jornaleros, the majority of whom are immigrants from Latin America, congregate every morning on street corners and other public locations in every major city in the United States to wait for a day’s work.

Members and supporters of VOZ, Portland’s local day laborer organizing project, held a vigil at Terry Shrunk Plaza as part of the Jan. 27 day of action. The crowd present was invited to light candles representing 14 cities where day laborers have been victims of violence or unfair labor practices in the past year. Representatives of VOZ and allied community organizations spoke about the rise of xenophobia and racism since Sept. 11, 2001. A few of the local day laborers spoke about their experiences, but ironically, few members of the assembled crowd were jornaleros themselves. VOZ organizer Ignacio Paramo attributed this to the fact that at five in the evening, many of the day laborers are just getting back from job sites, or are trying to get access to shelters and social services. However, he was pleased with the outcome of the rally, which drew about a hundred people.

With the aid of a translator, jornalero Mario Enrique Santos told the crowd, “I don’t understand the English language sufficiently to obtain a full-time job. While I am skilled as an electrician and carpenter, I have not been able to practice my skills in this country.”

Like Santos, many of the day laborers do have skilled training in their countries of origin, but the work they find here is usually low-paid manual labor, ranging from construction and demolition to landscaping and farm labor. The employers who pick them up may be individuals remodeling their homes, contractors looking for tax-free labor, or anyone in between. Some jornaleros are U.S. citizens or legal residents who have been unable to find a full-time job; many others are undocumented immigrants. Of those who are immigrants, according to a study conducted by Abel Valenzuela, Jr. of the UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, most come from Mexico, and most are sending money back to their families at home; although they themselves are usually living in conditions that, by United States standards, would be considered extreme poverty.

The most common crimes committed against jornaleros are labor law violations. It goes without saying that the jobs they receive do not include benefits and that the work itself is often dangerous. The week before the VOZ rally, a local jornalero died in a work-related accident. Beyond that, it is fairly common for employers to refuse to pay a day’s wages after the work is completed. Laborers who speak little English, and especially those who do not have legal work status, are particularly likely to fall victim to this sort of scam. In 2003, VOZ, working with a team of lawyers, was able to recuperate about $40,000 in unpaid wages for jornaleros, and the figure is projected to be as high or higher for 2004.

Romeo Sosa, the director of VOZ, said, “Day laborers represent the face of the immigrant community and the working poor. As they stand on corners seeking work, their labor is accepted but their physical presence is not.”

Increasingly, this lack of acceptance is manifesting itself not only through employer scams and harassment by the immigration authorities, but also through armed robberies and racially motivated attacks. In Jacksonville, Florida, a string of twenty-seven armed robberies on jornaleros have left two dead in the past four months. In Farmingville, New York, a day laborer’s home was firebombed in 2003, and in 2004 a man posing as a contractor committed a series of armed robberies against jornaleros. Similar incidents have occurred in Texas, Georgia, Alabama, and California. In Portland, while there have been no such dramatic incidents, employer scam has risen in the past year.

Immigration law and enforcement

Most Hispanic immigrants first seek work in the border states of California, Arizona, and Texas, but an increasing number are migrating to Oregon.

Paramo said that this is probably due in part to Oregon’s more lenient immigration enforcement and lower levels of hostility from white residents. “In the border states there’s a lot of racial tension and [day laborers] don’t feel very welcome. If some people don’t feel welcome here, down there it’s much worse.”

In California, Border Patrol agents frequently conduct raids on immigrant communities even in the interior of the state; and police in Los Angeles have reportedly collaborated with the INS in detaining undocumented workers. Here in Portland, immigration agents used to conduct frequent raids on the jornaleros on the corner, detaining both the laborers and the employers who came to pick them up. But in 1998, day laborers and community organizations began meeting with local police and INS representatives, asking them to halt the raids, which were leading to a general climate of fear and distrust between authorities and the Hispanic community. Due to community pressure, the authorities listened and the raids largely ended. An Oregon state law also prohibits police from detaining people based solely on their immigration status.

VOZ and its work

VOZ focuses partly on education and partly on organizing. Organizers hold monthly workshops with the jornaleros to talk about issues on the corner. Through these workshops, day laborers in Portland established a minimum wage for themselves, which was initially eight dollars an hour and has since risen to ten. They also established some basic guidelines for the corner: no drugs, no street drinking, pick up trash, and so forth. Despite this, there are still problems with drug dealers using the corner as a base of operations.

Paramo said, “The problem is people keep moving from city to city, so the old community moved out. So now we’re working on getting new rules with the community we have now.”
Many of the day laborers themselves also expressed frustration with the presence of drug dealers and street drinkers on the corner.

Jaime Zurita, a jornalero originally from Mexico, said, “The drug dealers on the corner affect us every single day… We are working very hard to clean up the corner to have just people who want to work.”

One of VOZ’ major longterm goals is to get a building space that can become a day laborer center, so that workers do not have to wait out on the street. In other cities, day laborer centers have worked well. They cut down on instances of employer scam, by providing a more structured work setting; and VOZ organizers believe that having a center would facilitate their organizing and educational work. They currently conduct English classes for the jornaleros, with the assistance of local college students. Paramo said he would also like to offer basic computer classes.

An NDLON statement notes, “Day laborers are on the front lines of severe social and economic problems resulting from globalization and the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.”

To some Americans, immigrants are the face of the forces that have taken away jobs and driven down wages for the United States working class. But the same free trade policies that have allowed manufacturing companies to move their bases of operations to lands with cheaper labor have also led to overcrowding and unemployment in the cities of developing countries. This, in turn, has caused more people to leave their home countries in search of work in the United States. Unless workers on both sides of the cultural divide are willing to move past their differences to fight for their common rights, they will only end up fighting each other.

Abby Sewell is a local freelance writer and worker/owner at the Back-to-Back Café on E. Burnside.


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Last Updated: March 1, 2005