Chasing an American Dream,

Chasing an American Dream, They Gather on a Corner in Brooklyn

Chasing an American Dream, <a href= They Gather on a Corner in Brooklyn” width=”190″ height=”137″ /> NYTIMES

Published: July 12, 2008 


The sun had barely pierced the indigo morning sky when Francisco J. Perez made the call. He gripped the street pay phone and spoke of his knack for spreading concrete, his expertise in carpentry, his love for painting. He paced and fidgeted, picking at his jagged, mud-encrusted fingernails, and then slammed down the receiver in triumph. 

On this day, unlike the week before or that day in March when the bosses tricked him into working without pay, he would make money.

By 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday, the street pageant of day laborers had begun. Dozens of burly men in dusty Timberlands joined Mr. Perez on the four corners at Ditmas and Coney Island Avenues in Brooklyn. They rolled up their sleeves and tightened their belts, hoping that a flash of brawn would bring passing construction vans to a halt. The less robust among them whipped out immigration papers, some on the verge of disintegration, praying that on this day, their legal status might give them an edge.

To watch the shape-up of day laborers at one New York City intersection is to glimpse desperation, entrepreneurship and clannishness take form and then dissolve in three hours — three turns of the clock in the corner Dunkin’ Donuts, 180 jumps of the minute hand on their scratched-up Casio wristwatches.

By 9:30 or 10, the construction vans were gone and only a dozen or so of the nearly 50 who had gathered actually got work. The unsuccessful began their tired walks back home, but they knew that the odds would still get them out of bed the next morning.

From the start, prospects on Wednesday looked dim. Traffic was light. The sun gave a hint of the afternoon’s heat. They stared as each car passed a construction supply across the street, waiting to jump at the screech of brakes.

Mr. Perez, a 22-year-old Honduran immigrant, sat alone in the shade, using his work clothes as a cushion.

That morning, at the recommendation of a friend, he had called a construction company to make his pitch and arrange for the pickup.

Within the group of day laborers that formed on this day, Mr. Perez’s success bred quiet jealousy. On his corner, men from Guatemala, Ecuador, and Mexico stood at a distance, chatting about the outrageous joke on the radio the day before, the good-looking girl in the supermarket, and how hard it was to get jobs.

Mr. Perez, electrified by the $85 in sight for 10 hours of work, was optimistic. A single man with skin darkened by his days in the sun, he said he looked forward to coming to the corner each day.

“For me, this is a good life,” he said in Spanish. “If I knew English, I would have a better job, but this isn’t bad at all.” At 6:45, the black construction van came and whisked him away.

The remaining men arranged themselves by region, Latin Americans in one spot, Pakistanis in another, Nepalese and Tibetans in their own huddle. Down the block from Mr. Perez, the group of Pakistani men began their morning ritual of smoking and snacking. They puffed cigarettes and picked berries from the mulberry trees, licking each morsel on their purple-stained hands. This was breakfast. “Eat,” they told each other. “Eat!”

Standing at a distance was the group’s reclusive, white-whiskered elder. They called him Beardman, and he tried to wave down vans with his hitchhiker’s . In the middle of the gathering stood Jacky Sing, a homeless man who seemed hopeful of getting a job, but in the meantime drank a Budweiser and showed off his overgrown toenails.

The eight Pakistani men talked about the hard life in America — how everything was fine until this year, when the construction jobs began to vanish. Mohammad Ejaz, 58, said he was getting about half the number of jobs he did last year. Zahid Shad, 41, said he had worked four days in the past two months.

Tariq Bukhari, 45, said he came to this country five years ago looking for a way to support his five children back home.

“People have a dream that America has big money,” Mr. Bukhari said. “You shake a tree and money falls. That’s a big dream. It’s not true.”

Across the street, 19-year-old Lucas Puac waited with three other Guatemalans hoping that youth and flexibility would make them stand out. Mr. Puac, an illegal immigrant, said he had built a reputation with several contractors and typically worked four or five days a week, usually painting or helping spread concrete. But he said he felt abused by the low wages, which amounted to $600 to $1,000 a month.


“The bosses know we’re illegal,” Mr. Puac said in Spanish, “but they don’t think we’re entitled to a decent living.” Around 8:15, a van pulled into the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot, and Mr. Puac and his friends crowded around. It was a false alarm; they already had enough workers.

The intersection’s center of gravity lay cater-corner to Mr. Puac, outside the Three Star Food Mart. It was there that the rookies came to network and the old pros, eager to tout their expertise, flaunted paint-spattered T-shirts and saw-eaten jeans.

The food market is also a nexus of daily conflict. At least once a week, Shiraz Azam, a cashier who works the 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. shift, calls the police to break up the swarm gathered at the storefront. The crowds have become so rowdy, he said, that the store moved its fruit and vegetable stand inside.

“Sure, everyone needs a job,” he said. “But what do they do? They throw garbage and bother customers. Don’t interfere in someone else’s job.”

The two dozen or so laborers outside the store were primarily in their 20s and 30s, Central American, and illegal immigrants. A reporter’s notepad and camera aroused fears of an undercover immigration operation and sent some scattering to the back streets for a while.

Bryam Tax, a former schoolteacher who said he paid $8,000 to be smuggled into the United States from Guatemala last summer, was one of the few who did not get skittish. In Brooklyn, he shares a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with 12 other laborers and sleeps in a bunk bed. He dreads the morning routine, he said, but he has to support his wife and 2-year-old son.

“In Guatemala, we didn’t earn as much, but at least there was nice living space,” he said in Spanish, his metallic front teeth glistening. “It’s very hard work.”

On the same corner, Pasang N. Sherpa, 35, stood in a huddle of Tibetans and Nepalis. They helped each other with the foreign English phrases, passing them down their line, each one contributing a word or two of translation.

Mr. Sherpa, who tries to send money every three months or so to his four children and wife in Tibet, was pessimistic from the beginning. “There are no jobs,” he said. “No good.”

When Mr. Sherpa showed up at the corner at 6:40, he said he would leave no later than 9 if he did not get work. But as 9 came and went, his hopeful stare down Coney Island Avenue continued. “Just a few more minutes,” he promised. Then he would go home and sleep.

At 9:25, Mr. Sherpa decided there would be no job for him that day. He picked up his knapsack and turned his back on the intersection.

Tomorrow would be another day. 

Day laborers find ample work in flood recovery

Day laborers find ample work in flood recovery

Day laborers find ample work in flood recovery By Alicia Ebaugh
The Gazette
CEDAR RAPIDS — Downtown, the rain hammers the dusty concrete before the sun comes up.

It’s 5:15 a.m. Thursday, and day laborers are gathering, hoping for a day’s work cleaning up flood-damaged property. Hundreds of workers, if not thousands, are employed now in the downtown, gutting and cleaning flood-damaged businesses and some homes.

About 10 job placement companies and labor brokers with names like Labor 4 Today are licensed to operate in Cedar Rapids, according to the city’s contractor registration list. It appears many others aren’t. Even Able Body, one of the largest providers of day labor in the area, wasn’t registered until Thursday morning. It has been operating here since mid-June.

Some of the workers are staying in the parking lots underneath the Interstate 380 bridge. 

On Thursday morning, a small group of men and women huddle quietly to wait for instructions, then walk away, pulling trash bags over their heads to ward off the rain. They will be picked up in 30 minutes for work.

The back door of a pull-behind trailer pushes open, and two men emerge, stretching, yawning. One sits in the doorway changing his pants while the other rummages in the truck. Police came down Tuesday night to clear out the mattresses and cardboard boxes that littered the parking lot, but clearly some day laborers are still sleeping there.

Soon, cars and trucks with Florida, California and local license plates roll into the lot, carrying workers in twos and threes. A bus emblazoned with the logo of Able Body Labor pulls up to the curb.

The workers crowd around Able Body’s signup table at 6 a.m. They are handed bags containing boots, hard hats and gloves. They go to stand in line.

“I wanna get out here and make some money,” said Debra Oliver, a hotel housekeeper who walked downtown Thursday morning from her home in northeast Cedar Rapids to find work. “The hotel pay is slow, so I took a month off to do this.”

On this morning, all those seeking work get it. One woman, though, said she’d only been selected for four days of work in the past three weeks.

City officials admit to lax enforcement of the local ordinance that requires all workers and companies in the flood zone to be registered with the city. It’s a matter of manpower.

“Our primary focus of enforcement is making sure our residential people don’t get ripped off,” said Jim Thatcher, Cedar Rapids fire marshal in charge of code enforcement. “It’s sad to say, but businesses should be smarter than that.”

No citations have been issued to companies or workers that are working without certification in the flooded downtown, Thatcher said, but code enforcement officers have been patrolling residential neighborhoods and giving warnings.

“The word has gotten out, and every day we’re seeing people who weren’t registered before going to get certification,” he said.

Some of the day labor companies pay workers in cash at the end of the day or week.

Able Body prints checks for everyone, available after 4 p.m. the next day — mainly to encourage workers to return. Their people are paid about $10 an hour to work 10- to 12-hour days.

None of the companies answered messages or phone calls for comment, and Able Body supervisors in town refused interviews. Mainly, they cite “negative press” focusing on rumors that the companies hire illegal immigrants or bring outsiders in to do jobs that local people should do. But that obviously hasn’t stopped people from wanting to work for them — or from requesting their services.

Without day laborers, flood recovery would take years, said Chad Reichert, general manager of ServiceMaster 380, which is providing cleanup services to residents and downtown businesses.

“There is no company large enough to handle all this work by themselves,” Reichert said. “We want to be able to get to our customers quickly and get them ready to get back to business as usual, and almost any contractor here is using temporary workers to do that.”

Reichert estimated that all of ServiceMaster’s flood projects across Iowa would be completed by the end of next week, leaving its customers ready for remodeling.

Hofstra housing discrimination suit can proceed, judge says

 July 9, 2008 

A federal judge yesterday ruled Hofstra law school can move forward with a federal housing discrimination lawsuit alleging Farmingdale engaged in a campaign to drive Latinos, including day laborers, from their community.

Judge Denis Hurley of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York handed down the ruling, the latest development in the long-running battle focusing on an apartment building that for years was the heart of Farmingdale’s “Little Latin America.”

Hurley denied a motion by the village to dismiss the lawsuit, filed by the law school’s housing unit on behalf of former tenants at 150 Secatogue Ave.,0,7827471.story

Religious leaders speak out on of laborers

by Jake Krob · July 16, 2008


Cornell College’s chaplain joined faith leaders from across the state last week to talk about what they say has been worker exploitation and a disregard for immigrant families in Iowa. In a conference call with media from around the state, s they highlighted the issue in light of day-laborers in Iowa helping with Flood of 2008 recovery efforts and the May raid in Postville.

Christians For Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR), patient a coalition of Christian organizations, convened the call.

The religious community is “taking the lead to shine a light on worker abuses,” said Patty Kupfer, manager of Partnerships with America’s Voice, an organization focused on increasing public and political support for immigration reform.

The Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel, Cornell’s chaplain and an Episcopal priest, came face-to-face with immigration and labor issues in Mount Vernon the weekend the Flood of 2008 struck Iowa.

Quehl-Engel, who said she represents herself and not the college, spoke of the laborers who first spent nights in a Cornell dorm while helping with flood clean-up in Cedar Rapids and the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area. The workers, doing jobs for ServiceMaster, arrived June 15 and left June 22. Quehl-Engel said they were hired, many coming from Kansas City, by a temp agency known as SourceOne.

Quehl-Engel said she was “appalled by their ,” saying, for instance, that they were given debit cards for food that initially did not work, arrived without the proper gear to do their clean-up jobs, and started working without precautionary measures such as tetanus shots. She said workers reported not being paid minimum wage, and some said their paychecks had deductions for bus rides to work sites. When she and some Cornell College colleagues learned of such conditions, she said the business was presented and complied with a contract that, for instance, stipulated workers be paid minimum wage.

In fairness to the company that hired them, Quehl-Engel said the businesses were “overwhelmed” by the response needed to handle flood clean-up. Furthermore, she said they might have been treated better than other companies were treating their workers. Quehl-Engel said, for instance, that a person she met in Cedar Rapids, not with the business housing employees at Cornell, reported having to sleep under the bus that brought him to Cedar Rapids.

“These are the faces of Iowa’s flood crisis,” Quehl-Engel said.

Other religious leaders concurred. Also joining the call to media last week were Bi Alan Scarfe of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa, Bi Steven L. Ullestad of Northeastern Iowa Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Bi Gregory Palmer of the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, and Rev. Julia Rendon of the Iowa Conference of the United Church of Christ.

Scarfe said he and Palmer went to Cedar Rapids with Quehl-Engle, describing the flood-ravaged areas as “the belly of a beast” with bad smells, filth and noise. He said one man they talked to, brought to Cedar Rapids to work, “actually thought he was in Chicago.”

Scarfe said the message from the religious leaders is, “you’re not going to get away with this.” He urges legislation to “bring decency” to immigrants and those brought here to help Iowa clean up.

The religious leaders also addressed labor issues in light of the May 12 raid at AgriProcessors in Postville. Ullestad, who grew up in Postville, said religious leaders in Postville described the raid as an “invasion” with roads closed, military-style helicopters flying overhead, and federal agents heavily armed. He said Postville will likely lose one-third of its population due to the raid.

Ullestad pointed out that only 5,000 immigrants without college degrees are allowed into the country each year, but that there’s a need for 10 times that many workers. That led to general discussion about the immigration changes religious leaders believe need to be made.

Palmer said some may wonder why religious leaders are addressing the issue when “you are not experts.”

He said their faith means caring for the most vulnerable and that they want to “lower the level of fear…that exists in any community.”

Quehl-Engel said she would like to see legislation that requires companies to be held accountable for the actions of any contractors they use to do their work.

Rendon said it’s “really a shame when our regulations and standards are ignored until casual passersby notice they’re being violate. We should not be depending on the good will of people whose job it is not to enforce (labor laws).”

Rep. Ro Foege, a Democrat from Mount Vernon, stepped in to help when questions about the of workers were raised in his community. He said when allegations were made that laborers weren’t being paid minimum wage, he called the labor commissioner.

He said he understands there are other concerns, such as workers being on the job for 15 or more hours a day. Unfortunately, he said, Iowa is an “at-will state,” and “if you want people to work 15 hours a day, you can if you get them to agree to it.”

The state will likely have a special legislative session to address flood-related issues. Foege said it’s unlikely the labor/immigration issues raised will be discussed.

But, he said he recognizes immigration matters need to be addressed by the state.

“It’s a huge, complex issue nationwide,” he said.

Group rallies against day laborer ordinance-Aurora,

Group rallies against day laborer ordinance-Aurora, CO, 9 News


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AURORA CO– The Aurora City Council has voted to postpone a vote that nonprofits say would keep them from offering help to day laborers.


Monday night, supporters of El Centro Humanitario, a group that promotes the rights of day laborers, came out to rally against the ordinance. The proposed ordinance would change the definition of a “temporary employment agency” to include nonprofits and charitable organizations. If passed, these groups would have to stay 1,500 feet away from employment agencies.

Supporters of El Centro say the ordinance would make it difficult to provide education and other services to day laborers. Aurora City Councilwoman Deborah Wallace says the ordinance is designed to protect businesses. She says that people sometimes congregate outside employment agencies for as many as 10-hours a day.The city council will take up the issue again in two weeks.

Day labor program tries to make it work

Day labor program tries to make it work


Day labor program tries to make it work By Shauntel Lowe

Article Last Updated: 07/13/2008 12:01:30 AM PDT


A three-block stretch of Hearst Avenue in Berkeley has become like an urban waiting room full of patients without appointments, all hoping an elusive will soon return to fix their wounds.

These are the wounds of poverty, family and ill-fated business plans that pain the bodies and minds of the day laborers taking their seats on curbs and corners along the avenue each morning with hopes of securing work for the day.

The Multicultural Institute, a nonprofit foundation in Berkeley, through its Day Laborers Program, tries to help by matching workers with contractors and homeowners in need of some construction, gardening or painting.

The program helped set up just under 300 jobs for laborers in fiscal year 2007, said Institute Associate Director Paula Worby. The Institute also has a program in San Mateo County. Many of the laborers came to the United States from Mexico and Central America in search of a for the ills of their home countries. But these days there is no — no money — on Hearst Avenue. The mortgage crisis and slumping economy have radically altered the industry dynamic. They come to Hearst Avenue from all over, some even walking from Richmond for the chance to work. And they wait.

On Wednesday morning, there were no contractors cruising for workers by Truitt & White Lumber Co. at the corner of Second Street and Hearst. It is common for day laborers to congregate in industrial areas and around construction-related businesses to try and score work.

One day last week, Rudy Lara, program assistant for the Institute’s laborers’ program, said he had only coordinated one minor job the previous day.

So minor, in fact, that he couldn’t remember exactly what type of work it was. He doesn’t see that changing any time soon. “Probably it’s going to get worse and worse,” he said.

Lara said just a few years ago people would find work easily from contractors and renovating homeownersNot now. “Everybody stopped (hiring) at the same time,” he said.Alberto Moran, 20, who also works with the program, blamed high prices and layoffs for the lack of work.”Usually in the summer, business picks up. (Now) with the economy, it stays where it is,” he said So they wait. Jose Corado, 49, stood near the corner of Fourth Street and Hearst geared up to paint in a white T-shirt and paint-splattered white pants and a lifetime of painting experience.

The only thing missing was a job.

“It’s not established anything. It’s temporary everything,” he said.

Corado said it had been weeks since he last had a job, even with the Institute staff out every day trying to set him up.

Lara painted a picture of a kinship between the Institute and Truitt & White, with the lumber company’s patrons hiring many of the program’s day laborers.

But Dan White, co-owner of Truitt & White, said that has not been the case over the past 15 years.

White said the company conducted a survey of its customers several years ago.

“The universal response was that the contractors that here almost never use the day laborers,” he said. “Pretty much they’re just standing out there all day.”

Lara said right now, remodeling homeowners are laborers’ best bet for securing work, but even that is slow. Moran said some people try to take advantage of the perceived desperation of the workers — 75 percent are undocumented, according to one major study — and “try to get them for cheap.”

Institute associate director Worby said the program recommends a wage of $12 to $15 per hour for most work, noting that it does not contract with anyone but tries to connect laborers with employers free of charge.

“We’re not taking a cut of the money,” Worby said. “We recommend a wage.”

Jorge Solano, 45, said he came here from Guatemala 10 years ago to make money to send back to his sick wife and four children and hasn’t been back yet.

“They gotta come because over there they make so little,” said Solano in Spanish with Moran translating.Lara and Moran said times are very difficult now, but they will keep coming out and stand with those still waiting. ”You can only hope for the best,” said Moran.

Social activist led fight for day laborers’ rights

Social activist led fight for day laborers’ rights

Social activist led fight for day laborers’ rights

FREEHOLD – Advocates for and members of Freehold Borough’s Latino community are mourning the loss of a person they called a leader in the fight for workers’ rights.

Alejandro Abarca, s 32, who lived in Freehold Borough between 2003 and 2007, ed died two weeks ago in Mexico from injuries he sustained in an automobile accident eight months ago in Mexico.

Frank Argote- Freyre, who chairs the Monmouth County chapter of the New Jersey Latino Leadership Alliance, remembered Abarca as the person who came forward and “pushed for the lawsuit” that was filed against the borough when municipal officials shut down a day laborers muster zone on Throckmorton Street on Dec. 31, 2003.

Earlier that year, Abarca, who was born in Mexico, had helped to form Casa Freehold, an advocacy organization for Latinos. Argote-Freyre said Abarca can be considered to be an “important figure historically in the area.”

Argote-Freyre said members of the alliance are mourning Abarca’s passing.

“He was a leader of the workers and fought for workers’ rights,” Argote-Freyre said. “It is a tragedy to lose someone like that.”

Steve Richter, of Philadelphia, and formerly of Freehold Borough, said Abarca was involved early on in the fight to reopen the muster zone.

“When our darkest hours were upon us, Alejandro was one of the first to come forward,” said Richter, who was an advocate for Freehold Borough’s Latino population. “He gave strength to others and made it easier for others who wanted to help the Latino community by laying the groundwork for them.”

Rita Dentino, a member of Casa Freehold, said she had been in contact with Abarca since his accident. She said he had undergone a number of spinal surgeries and died from complications of the most recent operation.

Dentino called Abarca a “leader” of workers in the area and a “social activist.”

According to Dentino, Abarca was a medical in Mexico. As a member of Casa Freehold, in addition to teaching English to immigrants, Abarca was responsible for teaching medical health issues to members of the Latino community.

“He was a person who wanted to unify everyone in the fight for social justice,” she said. “Although he was most visible to us in Freehold, Alejandro was involved in many social causes in other states as well. He helped to raise the level of awareness and education among people so that they would understand their


Dentino said Abarca was instrumental in helping to organize an alternate employment site for Freehold’s day laborers in 2004, following the closing of the muster zone.

A Mass was celebrated at St. Rose of Lima Church on June 26 and a memorial service remembering Abarca’s life was held on July 1. Abarca left the United States about a year ago to rejoin his wife in Mexico. He is survived by his wife and a 5-year-old son.