Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Hard times on the street corners

Citizen Staff Writer



Ruben Arturo, 21, left his native Honduras seven years ago looking for work in the U.S., slipping across the border illegally into Arizona. But in the past six months work has been so scarce he has packed his bags and is ready to make the trip back home.

Arturo and about 30 other day laborers stand in the parking lot of the Southside Presbyterian Church every morning hoping to be picked up for a day’s work, but recently there have been days when hope is all they get.

Josefina Ahumada, 63, a social worker running the Day Laborers Center at the church, said the men at the street corner, both legal and illegal, “are just like everyone else who is struggling to make it through these hard economic times.”

The number of day workers at that corner has dropped from 60 to less than 40 on any given morning, Ahumada said.

She said in the past year there has been a steady decline of employers coming to the church, which she attributes in part to the slumping economy.

It also can be attributed to the Arizona’s Employer Sanction Law, in effect since Jan. 1, 2008.

The law can punish with fines and possibly the suspension of their business licenses any firms that knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

“It wouldn’t be fair to say one had more impact than the other, because as the law took effect, the economy started falling,” Ahumada said.

Regardless of the reason, many illegal immigrants are leaving the country.

According to a report released two weeks ago by the U.S. Homeland Security Department, the number of illegal immigrants in the country fell for the first time in at least four years.

The decline still left the country with 11.6 million illegal residents in January 2008, down from a record 11.8 million a year earlier, according to a Homeland Security report. There were about 4 million illegal residents in 1990, according to federal agencies and researchers.

Despite the national decline, Arizona’s illegal population apparently grew.

The report said that about 9 percent of Arizona residents – about 560,000 people – are illegal immigrants. While the report did not say how many illegal immigrants lived in Arizona in January 2007, a September DHS report said there were an estimated 530,000 illegal immigrants in Arizona then.

But since fall 2007, Arizona’s economy has declined precipitously.

According to a December report by economist Marshall J. Vest of the University of Arizona, “Arizona’s economy has been contracting since the third quarter of 2007 – a few months before the nation’s economy topped out.”

The state’s latest jobs report bears that out. Phoenix lost 126,700 jobs in the 12 months ending in January – 37,500 in construction and another 25,600 in services.

In Tucson, nonfarm employment fell by 9,700 jobs, compared with numbers from January 2008. Manufacturing declined 3 percent, mining dropped 10 percent and construction jobs fell 25 percent.

Arizona overall has lost 155,400 jobs in the last year, a decline of 5.9 percent. Unemployment in the state rose to 7 percent – up from 4.9 percent a year earlier.

How many illegal immigrants have left the state since January 2008 is not known. The number of day laborers leaving the country can only be estimated because the U.S. Census Bureau tracks people who reside in the country without asking what their legal status is, said Pat Rodriguez, a U.S. Census Bureau partnership specialist.

But despite the dismal times, day laborers desperate for work continue to go to the parking area at Southside Presbyterian.

On a recent February day one of the laborers was waving an orange flag urging potential employers to pull in to the church’s parking lot at the corner of 23rd Street and 10th Avenue.

But trucks kept on driving by. In past years during the construction boom, most the men at the church would have been picked up for work by 8 a.m., a few laborers said.

Some of the day laborers are new to the street corner because they used to have steady jobs but have been laid off.

Others come and go but there are about two dozen men or more standing on the corner every day, Ahumada said.

The Day Laborer Center was started in 2006 by the church to help organize and educate the workers standing on the sidewalks near the area.

The center offers English lessons, a sign-up sheet for when employers need workers, and strict rules prohibiting drug or alcohol use and violence in the church’s parking lot, Ahumada said.

Lindy Sherman, a graduate student at Arizona State University, who is in the Tucson-based social work program, helps organize the day laborers.

“We not only help with the center, we are here to lend an ear to these men and try to keep their spirits up during a time of such desperation for work,” Sherman said.

She said one of the services for the men involves bringing a soccer ball to the parking lot to help keep the men busy and away from drugs and alcohol as they wait for hours, sometimes days, without work.

“During my time spent at the center, I’ve realized how many things we take for granted,” Sherman said. “Especially on days when not one guy gets picked up for a job. It’s really sad to see that.”

As laborers leave the country, Tucson business will be affected by their absence, said Price Fishback, a professor in the University of Arizona’s department of economics.

Their leaving “will definitely have an impact here on anyone selling products or services to immigrants,” he said.

Fishback, a specialist in the history of economics, said immigrant workers, are “pretty good” for the economy because they supply labor and increase a demand for goods.

“When the economy is bad here they leave, and when we need them they come back,” he said. “We’ve seen this happen in the past and it is happening again now.”

But a national immigration think tank believes the illegal immigrants leaving will ultimately be good for the economy and for out-of-work Americans.

Steven Camarota, director of research for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization, said in a report this month that “illegals are primarily employed in construction, building cleaning and maintenance, food preparation, service and processing, transportation and moving occupations, and agriculture. With the exception of agriculture (which accounts for only a small share of illegal workers – less than one in five), the majority of workers in these occupational categories are still native-born Americans.”

“If the United States chose to more vigorously enforce immigration laws over the next year, and this resulted in 1 or 2 million illegal workers deciding to leave, it could significantly improve the employment prospects for less-educated natives. An economic downturn would seem to be the ideal time to step up enforcement because such efforts would be buttressed by the economic situation, and a recession is the time when Americans, especially the poorest and least educated, are most in need of jobs.”

Most of the Tucson day laborers work construction, hospitality and home repair jobs, but “right now it seems as though most of the possible jobs are gone,” Ahumada said.

Arturo, the illegal immigrant from Honduras, said he used to get jobs weekly, but in the past six months all of his jobs combined do not add up to three weeks worth of pay.

“And that’s truly not enough to live,” he said.

That is why, he said, he will soon go back to his hometown in Honduras.

“I don’t know if things will be better back home, but I just can’t be here if I’m not getting work,” he said.

Even though the jobs are becoming less available, not all the workers will follow Arturo’s steps.

Some men come from Central American countries and many regions in Mexico where they face extreme poverty, political prosecution and danger, and “that’s why staying here and waiting for a better tomorrow is sometimes their only choice,” Ahumada said.

For many day laborers, the U.S. is their country of origin as far as they know. She said some of these men have been living in the U.S. for decades and came here when they were young, “so there’s not the option of ‘going home’ for them.”

“I believe there’s a misconception out there that these people are just hanging out in the corner. The reality is that these are people (who) are working in our communities and are part of them.”

To avoid problems, Ahumada said, volunteers have implemented a zero-tolerance policy for violence and alcohol and drug use at the center.

“We want to make sure that people in the area, and police, know our guys and separate them from all those who are committing crimes around here,” she said.

Tucson Police spokesman Sgt. Fabian Pacheco said the center has not been a major source of crime in its neighborhood. He also said that if there are problems in the area, TPD’s policy is not to ask suspects, victims or witnesses their citizenship status.

“We investigate any problems with criminal activity in the area, not whether the people causing the problems are here legally or not.” Pacheco said. “That’s the job of Border Patrol and ICE.”

Vincent Picard, a spokesman for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said ICE is after employers who are hiring illegal workers, not after those workers standing on the streets. Neither is the Border Patrol,which is mostly concerned with the border and the transportation of illegal immigrants, he said. “ICE conducts targeted enforcement operations. Our agents don’t drive around looking for people who are here illegally,” he said.

When employers knowingly hire illegal day laborers, then ICE would be involved, Picard said, because the employer is the one violating the law.

For some of the day laborers, such as 48-year-old Antonio Garcia, going to the church is a matter of survival.

“We have to survive; I have to provide for my family, and it’s getting tougher by the day,” he said. “All we can do is have faith that there will be more jobs again.”

Garcia has been standing outside the church from 6 a.m. to noon every day since last summer, waiting for more employers to come, he said.

“My wife can’t work, so it’s all up to me to bring food to the table,” he said. “That’s why I’m here every day.”

‘Everything and everyone is interconnected, so when an industry like construction . . . does bad, other industries are affected, directly affecting these day workers.’


social worker at Southside Presbyterian Church’s Day Laborers Center

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