On the Corner

New York’s Undocumented Day Laborers Fight for Their Piece of the Big Apple

On a recent morning, Chaumtoli Huq, an attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, stood in front of the temple cajoling the men, her small frame wrapped in traditional South Asian finery, a diamond stud through her nose. "One finger alone is weak," she told a group of laborers. "A whole hand is strong—what if you banded together and demanded more money from the bosses?" But some workers were fearful; from the edge of the crowd, a laborer complained about contractors threatening to hire "Spanish" workers for $45 a day. As if to further undercut her position, a van pulled to the corner, and a dozen or so Sikhs closed in to compete for a single job.

Huq, who has brought lawsuits on behalf of Sikh day laborers cheated of their wages, persisted, urging them to keep records and mark down license plate numbers. Still, in an interview, she acknowledges the difficulty in organizing workers who are inherently in competition with one another. "When these men get visas, the whole family—sometimes the village—pools money so they can afford the trip. Some are only here on three- or six-month visas," says Huq, who is Bangladeshi. "They're trying to make every dollar they can before they return." Back in India, their labor will net them about $4 a day.

Mr. Singh's two oldest sons in America work in construction also, but do not stand on the corner. They speak some English, are younger, of course, and so have found steady work. And slowly, inexorably, they are becoming Americanized. Their father would like them to have arranged marriages, but this is doubtful; already the boys have cut their hair and do not wear turbans. This is difficult for Mr. Singh. It is difficult also to work alone on a scaffold, 75 feet in the air, eyes and throat burning from the concrete dust. He thinks about the green fields of Punjab, his two sons who stayed behind, friends who have died without his good-byes. Still, "We're not going back. . . . We love America," he says. "The work is dangerous, but it's better than getting beat up by the police."


First NAFTA flooded the markets in Hidalgo, Mexico, with Idaho potatoes, then Javier Vasquez's wife got pregnant. With local wages falling, and living doubled-up on his father's farm, he left for New York in mid-May. "Those that came to New York and returned are living much better," he says of the men in his village who have made the trip. "They have their own houses; they buy new cars."

In early June, it had been 25 days since he headed for the border, 21 from the night he watched coyotes beat a rival smuggler bloody with an extension cord, 18 since he hopped a bus heading east from Denver, and fifteen from his arrival at Port Authority. His New York City welcome wagon was a gypsy cab, whose Mexican driver charged him $90 for a journey that costs about $4 via public transit. The cabbie said he would take Javier to a place where there was much work, and many Mexicans.

The Mexicans were there, standing in small groups in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Staten Island. By noon Javier had lined up a bed for the night. The next morning he went out to the corner of Port Richmond and Castleton with the others. But he did not find work that day, or on 10 of the next 15 days either.

Hatchet-thin, in pants too short and a threadbare sweater, the Mexican farmhand's almost embarrassingly earnest and friendly attitude stands out on the corner of jaded men, many of whom have been cheated of wages, or injured and abandoned by employers. At 7 a.m. on a damp June morning, he is in the shape-up. He passes the time studying a list of English words he thinks might be useful: dig, work, grass, shovel, dirt, dollar, the numbers one through 10. The other men begin to drift in, moving wraithlike through the Staten Island mist along a seedy stretch of Port Richmond Avenue, past the rolled-down gates, used furniture shops, and a dozen storefronts where you can send money to Mexico.

They gather in small groups. The Chilangos from Mexico City stand in front of No. 1 Chinese Food, the Oaxacans near the bank. Up the block, the cholos—down-on-their-luck gangbangers, all baggy pants, bandannas, and dead eyes—are blowing a joint in a doorway. The sweet smoke washes over the others as they watch for a van or a beat-up pickup with a telltale lawnmower lashed down in the back.

Yet it has rained nearly every day for weeks, and there is little yard work. El Diario says 14 Mexicans died in the Arizona desert. Every man here crossed the same way, some with wives and children in tow. They pass the newspaper around in silence. For two miles down the avenue, there are small clusters of men staking out corners—maybe 400 in all—groups and subgroups of Mexicans, Peruvians, even a lone Ecuadoran (whom everyone calls just "Ecuador"). They lose themselves in endless strategy sessions: Should they walk a block east or west, or cross the street?

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