[R-G] Today's economy: U.S. citizens are joining immigrants in store parking lots
shniad at gmail.com
Thu Nov 5 16:39:01 MST 2009
Las Vegas Sun
November 2, 2009
*The new faces of day labor
U.S. citizens are joining immigrants in store parking lots
"The point is, do we really want a labor market with day labor work
as a career path? It's more a commentary on the economy right now,"
By Timothy Pratt
It sounds like a George Lopez joke.
"Times are so bad that I saw an Anglo day laborer standing outside Home
Depot the other day."
Except it's true.
In the latest sign of the Las Vegas Valley's economic free fall, U.S.
citizens are starting to show up in the early mornings outside home
improvement stores and plant nurseries across the Las Vegas Valley, jostling
with illegal immigrants for a shot at a few hours of work.
Experts say the slow-starting but seemingly inexorable trend is occurring
"It's the equivalent of selling apples in the Great Depression," said Harley
Shaiken, chairman of the Center for Latin American studies at the University
of California, Berkeley.
But it is not only a sign of the times, they add. If the numbers of citizens
among the day laborers in cities across the country continue to grow, it's
likely to increase the ire of followers of TV host Lou Dobbs and others who
will see illegal immigrants as stealing food off the tables of the nation's
native-born or naturalized poor.
Or, it may flip certain canards upside down in the immigration debate,
easing tensions in some communities.
In the Las Vegas Valley, where the most recent unemployment rate was 13.9
percent, one face of this phenomenon is Ken Buchanan. The 50-year-old
describes himself as a "food and beverage" guy, most recently working for
four years at Renata's Sunset Lanes casino and, before that, 30 years in a
string of restaurants, hotels and casinos here and in his birthplace,
But in 2006 Renata's closed for remodeling. When the casino reopened as
Wildfire, the management did not rehire Buchanan, he said.
In the months that followed, Buchanan discovered the difficulty of seeking
work in his fifth decade, eventually winding up at Green Valley Car Wash,
where he stayed for about two years, he said.
The banks foreclosed on the house he was renting. In the attempt to grab his
things two steps ahead of the constable, he wound up missing work. He lost
his job. He became homeless.
A Hispanic man Buchanan met in Renata's sports book told him he had picked
up work standing outside the Home Depot on Pecos Road at Patrick Lane. One
July day, Buchanan gave it a try. At first, he got nothing but sunburn. But
then he started to get work. Now he's at the Home Depot six days most weeks.
Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the Los Angeles-based National Day
Laborer Organizing Network, said he has been seeing the same thing
elsewhere. "It's happening, though still not in massive numbers," Alvarado
said. In the past six months or so, he has heard of "americanos" on the
street corners and parking lots of Silver Spring, Md., Long Island, N.Y.,
and Southern California locations.
"It's just beginning," he said. "But I think it's only going to increase."
A recent morning's swing through the valley produced reports of the same
phenomenon. At Star Nursery on Cheyenne Road west of Tenaya Way, Nicolas
stood shivering under a hooded sweatshirt, hoping a car or pickup would
stop. The Mexican immigrant said he had seen a couple of "white guys"
showing up recently, though not on the blustery cold days last week.
At Home Depot on Decatur Boulevard north of Tropicana Avenue, Jose said the
same thing, adding that "it's never more than three or four, but they're
Farther south, in front of Moon Valley Nursery on Eastern Avenue, Israel
said a couple of "americanos" - white and black, he added - have come out
for work in recent months. "But they tend to stay only a few days."
As a salesman at Moon Valley, Mike Fugitt's job includes making sure the
laborers don't come into the nursery's parking lot, because their presence
draws complaints from some customers. In the past three months or so, he
said, more of those laborers have been telling him, "But I'm an American."
That includes some Hispanics, he added. "But I treat them all the same; they
can't be trespassing," he said.
Workers at all the sites said the presence of the americanos hasn't made
work scarcer or produced any conflict. Some suggested that people hiring day
laborers prefer Hispanics anyway, because of their reputation as hard
Shaiken said shaking up the mix at day labor sites may eventually produce
conflict in the greater society. "It essentially shreds the argument that
Americans don't want certain jobs," he said.
In the current economy, he added, "we're almost sure to see die-hard
opponents of illegal immigrants seize on the fact that we have legal workers
in day labor markets," heating an already-inflamed debate.
In the longer term, it may also lead to a more rigorous analysis of future
labor markets, including revised estimates of how many immigrants would be
needed under a guest worker program, as proposed in recent congressional
At the same time, Shaiken said, the issue won't become central to the debate
before Congress over what is known as comprehensive reform, including a
pathway for legalizing millions of workers. "The point is, do we really want
a labor market with day labor work as a career path? It's more a commentary
on the economy right now," he said.
Although Alvarado allowed that the change in day labor sites was an
undeniable sign of the withering economy, he also sees a "beautiful irony"
in U.S. citizens seeking work as day laborers.
That's because his organization has defended the free-speech rights of day
laborers in at least 10 court cases over more than a decade. Up to now,
courts have ruled in favor of the laborers.
"We always knew (these cases) would be useful not only for immigrants, but
also for U.S. citizens," Alvarado said. "We knew there would be a time when
the economy would reach this point, and they also would be looking for work
Buchanan likes to wear a Cubs or White Sox cap as a sign of his Chicago
heritage when he stands with one or two Hispanic laborers about 20 yards
south of a larger crowd. He said he has gone through an education of sorts
in the past four months. He has always worked around Hispanics in
restaurants, hotels and casinos, but now he understands the issue of
immigration from up close.
His sojourn got off to a rocky start. On one of his first days on the street
outside Home Depot, another laborer told him he should move along because
too many people were at the spot.
"I told him, 'I'm an American citizen and you're trying to push me off
American soil?'?" The man walked away, and Buchanan says he hasn't had
another problem with his competitors since.
Instead, Buchanan has found himself defending the rights of his fellow
laborers on more than one occasion. One day, a man tried to hire a bunch of
them for $5 an hour. Again, Buchanan pulled out the "citizen card." But this
time, he was telling the other person that he, a U.S. citizen, knew about
minimum wage laws, and was going to make sure those laws were followed. "I
said, 'You want me to write down your license plate number?'?" Buchanan
recalled. The guy drove away.
Now, he said, "I get along with everybody here."
He stands in a smaller group because he thinks that helps to get work. He
reads the daily tea leaves of the trade, like the end of the month being a
good time for moving jobs, because many people are moving in or out. His
best week so far: $140. His longest stint without work: the first two weeks,
"until I learned to be more aggressive."
Antonio Bernabe, day labor organizer for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant
Rights of Los Angeles, said the appearance of more and more U.S. citizens
seeking day labor work on corners and in parking lots poses new challenges
for organizations such as his. In recent months, he said, he has found
himself explaining to a whole new group the legal rights of workers, as well
as approaching local authorities to discuss the entry of new people into
what he called "the world of day labor." That group includes blacks and
Asians, he said.
Another difference is that now he's giving those explanations to laborers in
Bernabe said organizers came across one case where a local sheriff had been
sending officers to answer complaints about day laborers and then found one
day that the sheriff's neighbor, a citizen, was among them. Police in that
area have been less likely to harass laborers since then, he said. These
events will occur more, changing people's attitudes in the process, he said.
"For a long time, people have looked at day laborers and said, 'The problem
is the immigrants.' Now the economy is changing. Now people may see it's a
problem of the labor market, of the rights of workers," Bernabe said.
Buchanan, meanwhile, looks forward to a future that includes a steady job
and an apartment. "I'm trying to dig my way out of this," he said. When he
does, however, he sees himself as a changed man.
"Before, I was part of the majority. Now I'm part of the minority ... I'm
not going to forget this. I'm not going to forget any of this."
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