- The Washington Times - Monday, November 26, 2001

Antonio is up before daylight, getting ready to go to work. He's lucky today his friend knows someone who needs three men to

paint rooms in Virginia. On this day, it turns out, he will paint for 14 hours to make $100. And with any luck, he will do it again tomorrow.

Not the best job or money, but not bad for a guy who dropped out of school in the seventh grade, and who isn't even supposed to be in the United States.

Antonio is an illegal immigrant from El Salvador and a day laborer. Every day, he competes with thousands of other men, most of them also illegal, for work. Every night he tries to help his 18-year-old wife, Ketia, raise his 2-month-old son, to give him the things he doesn't have himself.

"It's too late for me," says Antonio, whose world-weariness at 23 might be comical, except for all that he's gone through. "Now it's time to give opportunities to my son."

Workers and day labor advocates estimate that 10,000 day laborers live in the metropolitan Washington area. Most are Hispanic immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala, staying in the country illegally. Only about 10 to 20 percent have documents, says Douglas Carranza, coordinator of the Day Laborer Network, a Los Angeles-based consortium of day labor centers throughout the country.

Day laborers flock to at least 10 street corners in the D.C. area.

Popular spots are Four Mile Run Road and Shirlington Road in Shirlington, where about 100 workers gather. About 300 people used to gather at University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue in Langley Park. The crowd has dwindled since Casa de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group, opened a new site under pressure from University Boulevard business owners and police harassment.

Helping hand

Groups often collect at Home Depots, paint stores and 7-Elevens, hoping to catch an ordinary Joe who needs a helping hand.

Monday through Saturday, dawn until noon, they wait.

In a good week, they work three days out of the six. Workers and advocates estimate that anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of the men receive work each day. The rest head home around noon, empty-handed and discontented.

In Langley Park and Shirlington, there are two day labor centers where employers recruit workers with the help of bilingual staff members. These sites are more organized: Each worker takes a number, and first to come is the first to go work.

The employers are most often contractors in nondescript vans and pickups. The contractors often work with major moving companies and construction companies. Some have worked at McDonald's. And a few have even moved office furniture in the Department of Transportation.

In their home countries, many of these men were graphic designers, lawyers, teachers and mechanics skilled workers. Here, they're not. Many come dressed more for the office than construction sites, with pocket protectors and stylish polo shirts. Dignified workers.

A mad rush ensues when an employer pulls up. Workers elbow to the driver side window yelling a few of the only English words they know, "How much you pay?"

The English-speaking employer and the Spanish-speaking worker negotiate a price. All laborers work for cash payment.

Most of the time day laborers do the work legal residents don't want: mowing lawns, washing dishes, painting fences, demolition, digging ditches. The pay is around $8 to $12 an hour. But they'll accept less, $4 to $5 an hour, if they really need it.

Sometimes day laborers do skilled work that legal residents want but would charge more for: welding, electrical work, construction, house painting or carpentry. For those jobs, they request from $9 to $20 an hour.

Day laborers make about $500 to $1,500 a month. With that, they support their families here and abroad. There are also young men, 15 to 21 years old, who come by themselves, seeking independence and a new life.

Guatemala and El Salvador are home countries to most of D.C. area workers.

But workers come from Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Russia, Africa or anywhere the economy is weaker America is still the land of dreams for most.

Rough morning

It's 5 a.m. and already Antonio's having troubles. His friend's beat-up Maxima that Antonio thought was fixed won't start.

He wants to be at the 7-Eleven parking lot in suburban Maryland by 6:45 a.m. Running a little behind schedule, he hops into a Metrobus and gets stuck in traffic for an hour. He arrives at 7:30 a.m.

He and his friend wait beneath a tree for the man who needs the painters. Sleepy-eyed day laborers and employers trickle out of the convenience store, clutching coffees.

At 7:45, a freshly waxed blue Tahoe pulls up.

That's it, Antonio's friend tells him. They climb in. The driver is with a small construction company based in Laurel. The door slams, and the Tahoe speeds off.

Fourteen hours later, just after 9:30 p.m., the Tahoe returns to the parking lot.

Speckled with white paint, Antonio and the others climb from the SUV. His T-shirt is slung over his shoulder, his undershirt revealing a build that comes from manual labor. Globs of white paint hang from his jeans. He lights a cigarette that was tucked behind his ear.

Craning his neck from the side window, the driver calls out, "Six o'clock tomorrow, Antonio. Right here, OK?"

"Yes, yes," Antonio nods.

"He's a good worker," the driver says. "We're thinking about keeping him on permanently."

Antonio smirks, showing his skepticism. As the driver speeds off, Antonio drawls, "I am so … tired."

He came to the United States three years ago. He was sick of sharing a bed with his brother in El Salvador and wanted to make money. The $100 he earned on this particular day is a month's wages in El Salvador.

"It was a way to make my life better. I had heard so much," Antonio says. "That you could do anything and get whatever you want."

Most immigrants enter with the help of smugglers. Immigrants are squeezed in the bottoms of hollowed-out trucks and buses. Smugglers charge up to $5,000 for the trip.

Antonio took a bus in El Salvador, then a boat in Gaugeable. He jumped a cargo train in Mexico where he spent two weeks leaning between new cars, one of about 200 heading to the border.

Near the Texas border, he and about 30 other men hopped off and faced the desert. Antonio split from the group and walked two days nonstop without food or water, he says. In the second day, he peered over a mountain and saw his future in Texas.

"I saw a house and I realized, 'I am here. I am in the U.S.,' " Antonio says. He was so excited, he says, he splashed about in a small stream to get rid of the dust, sweat and dirt of the monthlong trip.

He had no money. He knocked on the door and asked for "agua," or water.

A man answered and threatened, in English, to call immigration. Antonio ran to the next house.

There he found a Mexican family who spoke Spanish. They gave him food, water and a clean polo shirt, which is still the only shirt in his wardrobe that's not a T-shirt. He called his sister who lives in Langley Park. She wired him money for a plane ticket to Washington.

So began his life as a day laborer.

Along the border

Others have been less fortunate: On May, 14 immigrants died in the Arizona desert after being abandoned by smugglers.

Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) border patrol agents intercepted 1.6 million border crossings last year. They guard the line on foot, on horseback and in all-terrain vehicles. About 9,000 agents patrol the U.S. borders, says Nicole Chulick, an INS spokeswoman.

In response to the wave of illegals hoping to find prosperity in the United States, the INS has beefed up its crews. Since 1995 the agency has doubled the number of border patrol agents.

It also has updated its technology with night-vision goggles, agents can now see immigrants crossing at night. Borders are watched every day, around the clock.

"The priority is the border," Miss Chulick says. "Our primary goal is to target criminal aliens in the U.S. We are more interested in breaking up a smuggling operation than going after one or two illegal workers. That's the target."

President Bush said in September that he would ask Congress to legalize Mexican aliens if they would take jobs others pass up. He also would do away with the legal obstacles American companies that want to employee illegal immigrants face.

Mr. Bush hasn't said how legal status could be given to the estimated 3 million Mexicans living illegally in the United States without discriminating against those from other nations. The president has repeatedly said he opposes blanket amnesty for all 3 million illegals.

Workers have streamed into every major city in the last five years, says Mr. Carranza of the Day Laborer Network.

"If you walk in the streets of any big city, there's people just waiting for jobs on street corners," he says.

Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Houston, Dallas and Denver absorb some of the biggest day-laborer populations, he says.

Workers in the metropolitan Washington area often head south for the winter when jobs become scarce. A lot of places offer cheaper rent around $500 for a one bedroom, compared to the $800 workers pay here, splitting the rent between four to eight persons. Unfortunately, where living is cheaper, wages hover at $6 an hour.

Mr. Carranza estimates there are 100,000 day laborers nationwide, 25,000 in Los Angeles alone.

Day laborers have become part of the global economy, he says.

"It's related to the way the economy is working," Mr. Carranza says. "The notion of a temporary job is becoming more popular with contractors because they don't have to pay other benefits. They save money by hiring day laborers.

"The reality is that many of these menial jobs they do are basically rejected by people who have documents and better opportunities," he says.

Opponents say day laborers cause several problems in the work force.

"Without the presence of the large number of day laborers to work, employers would have to take the steps to recruit and retain available workers by raising wages and offering better working conditions," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies.

Day laborers are working for much less than a union worker would, says Jerry Lozupone, executive secretary and treasurer for the Building Trades Council, which represents 16 building trades unions in the Washington area.

At minimum, union workers make $20 an hour plus benefits, he says.

Day laborers don't drive down union wages, Mr. Lozupone says, but they do drive down nonunion wages.

"If the wage gets to be too high, they go down to a corner and get some guys," he says.

The housing industry uses illegal workers the most, according to Mr. Lozupone, but most commercial and industrial jobs rely on union workers.

"[Union men] don't do houses anymore," he says. Instead, contractors hire out day laborers because they can pay them less and work them harder by refusing them breaks.

"It's the Billy-Joe-in-the-pickup-type of people who are taking these guys … the average American expects and demands a little better treatment," he says.

Hard times

Times are tough for area day laborers.

Workers have been hit hard by the economic slowdown. Last year around 60 percent of them scored jobs each day; this year the average runs between 20 and 50 percent, estimates show.

Pay is uncertain. At one employment center in the District, a list named 20 employers who owe workers money one owed $15,000.

Jobs are rough. Workers talk of being stranded at work sites with no ride home. Many guys carry goggles, earplugs and face masks because employers almost never provide them with protection. They'll get hurt, sliced by a saw, and the employer pushes them to work despite the bleeding, they say.

They don't have much choice. The law gives them no protection. They can take it or leave.

A few, like Jose Luis, are planning to leave it. He hopes to head back to Bolivia by Christmas.

Like Coronado searching for the fabled cities of gold, he came hoping to find the $35 hourly wage he'd heard of through stories. He soon discovered reality.

"It's brutal work that could be done by a mule. Those are the jobs for which they look for Hispanics," says Mr. Luis, 35, who works in suburban Virginia. "I came to see for myself. Now I know that life here is not how the painters paint it."

Others, like Antonio, have adopted the United States as their own.

"This is my country now. Ketia and Antonio are here. I want to be a family man," he says.

Ketia and Antonio aspire to the 1950s American ideal: she a stay-at-home mom, he the owner of his own contracting business. They dream of having a little house in the suburbs with a Honda Accord parked out front.

For them, the American dream is not a tired cliche. It's real.

Antonio says if he had the chance to go back and enter the country again, he'd do it right, with papers. Despite the endless hours, the uncertainty of work and the hardships that befall a day laborer, he still believes in the dream that drew him here.

"People say the American dream is to have everything. It's not. The American dream is like a waking dream. If you want something, you can work hard to get it."

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