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National Network for Immigrant & Refugee Rights

March/April 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

National Network for Immigrant &
Refugee Rights
310 8th St., #307
Oakland, CA 94607
Contact: Cathi Tactaquin

In 1994, the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights conducted an extensive survey of local responses to day laborers, and in May 1996, survey author Jill Esbenshade updated the information by recontacting cities, day laborer projects and community agencies. In all, we gathered information on the situation in almost 50 cities in 12 counties throughout California. We felt that it was critical to monitor the day labor situation, both because of the daily harassment and exploitation faced by day laborers as well as the larger question of how anti-day labor activities were galvanizing and consolidating a more general anti-immigrant movement in the state.

Over the past several years, California has seen a significant growth in the population of day laborers, mostly poor Latin American immigrants who wait on street corners for casual work (gardening, hauling, construction, etc.). This increase, coupled with an explosion in anti-immigrant rhetoric and sentiment, has led to a crisis over the "day labor issue" in many communities. Numerous California cities have passed ordinances banning day labor solicitation on the street and/or have set up programs to remove the day laborers from public areas.

Day laborers are the most visible (assumed-to-be-) representatives of a group that has been demonized in the last decade, particularly the last five years: "illegal aliens." Moreover, the focus on undocumented immigrants, consistently portrayed in public discourse as Latino despite the diversity of their origins, is occurring within the context of a generalized backlash against people of color. In California, Proposition 187 activists rode their victory momentum straight into the anti-affirmative action campaign to pass the "California Civil Rights Initiative."

For those who live or shop near places where day laborers congregate, the laborers are a constant reminder not only of the "take-over" by racial minorities within the United States but also of all the billions of poor in the world (particularly those close to our borders) who threaten the status, and the conscience, of the "land of plenty." Day laborers are viewed as culturally and ethnically distinct and a threat to the standard of living of the neighborhoods in which they congregate -endangering health, safety and property values.

We found that day laborers are the victims of a continuing campaign against immigrants, which entails a certain "politics of visibility." Local governments have attempted to close off all public spaces under their jurisdiction to day laborers (who are, after all, members of the public.) This trend toward the democratization of supposedly communal spaces is a phenomenon urban theorists have referred to in other contexts as "the end of public space."

However, our survey also documented many positive examples of ways in which day laborers and their advocates have alleviated some of the most harmful situations and have even organized for their own empowerment.

The longest ongoing and most comprehensive efforts have been made in Los Angeles. In January 1989, over a dozen community agencies began an adopt-a-corner program organized through the Coalition for Humane Immigrants Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). Volunteers visited corners on a weekly basis, advising workers of their rights and responsibilities, and monitoring police abuse. When a proposal to ban day labor solicitation came up in the City Council, over 100 workers attended the City Council meeting, which was translated into Spanish for the first time in Los Angeles' history. The City Council voted down the ordinance and instead appropriated funds to set up job centers in various pans of the city.

Recently, CHIRLA created a dispute resolution model that uses dialogue and negotiation between the different parties involved. Through the dispute resolution process, the workers have formed an organization and a sense of community. They have a steering committee, an executive board, a soccer team and their first newsletter, Jornaleros at Dia. CHIRLA has also successfully trained and educated day laborers to advocate for themselves with police, employers and the community at large.

San Francisco also successfully adopted the model of day labor organizing. There, day laborers in 1991 formed the Asociacion Latina de Trabajadores. ALATT was founded at the city-run San Francisco Day Labor Project as an attempt to get workers involved in expanding the center's services, education component and job referrals. Five years later, ALATT is doing fundraising, precinct walking and is a visible presence at political and cultural events, and is in the process of becoming its own, independent nonprofit organization. They have shown that day laborers can take advantage of government efforts to remove them from visible public locations and use these impediments as a base from which to create truly con-structive solutions.

In several cities, church workers have also gotten involved, and have managed to diffuse potentially explosive situations. In the community of Sierra Madre, which has a small corner where 20-30 men gather, members of a local church had regularly provided a weekly meal to the day laborers; when an anti-solicitation ordinance was proposed in that city, the church members interceded. Through their mediation, the day laborers and the surrounding community gained a mutual understanding of each other's concerns, and the situation improved considerably. This process also high-lighted the fact that a small group of people were responsible for all the complaints and that most of the city's residents were not opposed to the day laborers.

While local government and authorities have certainly used repressive measures, day laborers consistently mention employer exploitation as their biggest problem: failure to pay promised wage rates, or reneging on paying wages entirely. Employers seldom pay overtime and often do not compensate workers, or even pay medical expenses, for injuries sustained on the job.

In the meantime, tension over the workers' presence continues to grow. Robin Toma, a staff member of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, advised, "Cities need to show enlightened leadership in not simply catering to the concerns and prejudices of business and homeowners who have money and votes, while trampling on the basic rights of day laborers, who are one of the most politically powerless sectors in our society." Local governments have set precedents for restricting public spaces; we must now work creatively to protect them as places for everyone. Join our mailing list! Send a message to with the words "subscribe nnirr-news" in the body of the message. "The Politics of Day Labor: Denial and Access to Immigrant Workers," by Jill Esbenshade (50 pp.), is available for $10 from NNIRR. The Day Labor Program of SF may be reached at 995 Market St., #1108, SF, CA 94103, 415/252-5375; CHIRLA is at 1521 Wilshire Blvd., LA, CA 90017, 213/353-1344.

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