Worker centers bring order, controversy to day labor

By Paul F. P. Pogue

Not all day laborers find work on street corners. Day labor centers, like the Macehualli Center run by Salvador Reza in Phoenix, have become more common in recent years.

Abel Valenzuela, a researcher with UCLA's Center for the Study of Urban Poverty and lead writer of "On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States," says about 20 percent of day workers find employment at one. Only a few such centers existed prior to 2000. Now nearly 70 can be found around the nation, mostly in immigrant-heavy areas such as New York, California and the Southwest.

The centers act as a meeting place for day laborers and contractors who arrive in search of workers. As with any hiring, the employer is responsible for checking I-9 documents to determine the worker's legal status, though it's not known how many contractors picking up day laborers actually do so.

Because a day labor center is neither a staffing organization nor a hiring entity, according to Valenzuela, they are not required to check documents. Valenzuela's research indicates day laborers are largely male, come from Mexico or other parts of Latin America, and 75 percent are undocumented.

Valenzuela says such centers create an orderly job-allocation system, set minimum wage rates and add a level of safety and treatment standards for workers. "We believe day labor centers can improve conditions dramatically in the day-labor market," he says.

Reza says they also provide an important source of community stability. "By taking laborers out of the streets, then you get control of the streets," Reza says. "You're able to have a more dignified and orderly way of handling the situation."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Pat Reilly says that although day labor centers tend to attract illegal workers, ICE doesn't usually go after them.

"We prioritize our worksite enforcements based on national security, critical infrastructure and possible threat to public health and safety," she says. "On that scale, day labor sites are not very high. But there's no policy specifically against targeting those sites."

Valenzuela points out that since not every day laborer is an illegal immigrant and the weak job economy is causing more non-immigrants to seek day labor, raiding centers would have mixed results. He also notes that centers are very careful not to act as employers themselves, but only to serve as a meeting space, which violates no labor laws.

A number of organizations are opposed to the idea of day labor centers. Save Our State, a California-based group, maintains that such sites only enable lawbreakers by streamlining illegal activities.

"Day labor sites not only encourage slave labor, but they also encourage the breaking of federal immigration and employment laws," says SOS media and events director Chelene Nightingale. Other groups, including U.S. Border Watch, Judicial Watch and the Center for Immigration Studies, have voiced similar disapproval.

Laborers themselves are often wary of centers and other resources offering employment and legal assistance, because some charge a small fee for their services. "It's just not worth it," says Hugo, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador who finds employment on Indianapolis street corners. "We don't make that much."


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