Friday, June 25, 2010

Nogales: Laborers in limbo as SB 1070 nears

As Nogales’ Friday morning bustle begins amid the sound of chirping birds and the rumble of a nearby garbage truck, a tan-colored pickup pulls up slowly to the strip of Grand Avenue in front of the Pimeria Alta Museum.

The driver, a smiling, wrinkled man honks twice as men dressed in denim, work boots and baseball caps hold up fingers in a gesture to ask how many workers he needs.

The truck, its bed loaded to the brim with wood, pulls in to the parking lot behind the museum and two men jump in.

Meanwhile, just up the street, a group of crisply dressed women sit anxiously on benches, clutching their purses. One stands up and waves at a blonde-haired woman, who greets her in broken Spanish before the two continue down the sidewalk.

One-by-one, the other women follow suit, climbing into cars or walking away with a newfound employer.

The day has begun for Nogales’ day laborers – men who do yard and construction work, and women who clean houses or nanny children. Some are out-of-work Americans, while others are unemployed Mexicans who cross legally into the U.S. as tourists, but try instead to find an informal day’s work.

The architects of SB 1070, Arizona’s tough new immigration law, hope that life for these folks gets a lot tougher on July 29 when the measure comes into effect. Under the law, people who hire day laborers can be charged with a class 1 misdemeanor.

No distinction

Francisco Castillo, who patrols the lot behind the museum for neighboring Bank of America, said it’s typical to see men sitting under the billboard in the lot each weekday morning.

“It’s become a custom,” Castillo said. “The museum is somewhat of a reunion point for people without work.”

And in Santa Cruz County, there are a lot of people without work. According to May figures from the Arizona Department of Commerce, the county jobless rate remains around 18 percent – which hit a decade high in March.

Jesus Gutierrez, a Rio Rico resident who said he was laid off from jobs at Wal-Mart, Zulas Papachoris’ Restaurant, and Jack-In-The-Box because of the recession, now seeks work as a day laborer.

“I hope to find yard work, or whatever I can get,” Gutierrez said, as he sat in the shade of a ramada across the train tracks from the museum.

He said he hasn’t found work in the past few weeks and he said he thinks enforcement of SB 1070 will help him, since people tend to hire day laborers from Mexico who work for less.

However, the law does not distinguish between a person who hires Gutierrez, who lives legally in the U.S., and someone who hires Martin, Hector or Leonel – three day laborers who didn’t want to reveal their last names because they live in Mexico and lack U.S. work visas.

As a blue sedan with a rolled-down window slowed near the museum, Martin held up three fingers and shouted, “How many do you need? We do yard work and tiling.”

But the car sped off and Martin turned to Hector and Leonel and said, “Well, looks like we’re not going to be working today.”

Martin, who crosses in from Nogales, Sonora five days a week, said he finds work about two days a week – usually in Rio Rico.

He said there is less work now than before and he said he thinks it’s because people have less money to pay workers. Or perhaps they’re fearful to hire day laborers because of the new law, he said.


Castillo said he thinks many of the day laborers are undocumented, and he expects to see big declines in their numbers come July 29.

Lt. Octavio Gradillas of the Nogales Police Department disagrees.

“When they’re so visibly out in public like that, I think they’re legal,” Gradillas said. “Especially with so many border agents downtown I don’t think they’d risk being caught.”

Yet even with Border Patrol agents whizzing by on a bike every few minutes, or a Border Patrol helicopter hovering above the museum, Martin, Hector and Leonel say law enforcement officials rarely – if ever – approach them.

Gradillas said it’s only a police matter if NPD receives a complaint, like the time museum staff complained that the congregated laborers were blocking pedestrian access.

When asked about the day laborers near the museum, Mario Escalante, spokesman for the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, said he had heard of the group, but that to his knowledge, the agency has not received any requests to verify the workers’ legality.

Gradillas said since a lot is still up in the air regarding the role of the police in enforcing SB1070, he has no idea how – or if – the law will affect NPD’s responsibility for cracking down on day laborers.

Martin, the undocumented laborer, said he’d be under the billboard on July 29 to see how it all shakes out.

“I’m still going to come,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”

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