On the Corner

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

A few minutes past 8 a.m., a gleaming black Lincoln drifts to the sidewalk. The driver, a young white man with a brush cut and a gold chain, holds up one finger. Javier and two dozen others bolt from the wall like sprinters leaving the blocks. In an instant the car is surrounded by a mass of pushing, shoving bodies.

"Off the car, off the car," shouts the gold-chain man. Then, to no one in particular, "Geez, it's like a fucking zoo around here." He leans toward the window: "I need one guy. Anybody speak English, English? Wash buses all day. Buses, buses, understand? English! Anybody speak English?" The laborers want to know three things, the sum of which, for many of them, comprises the extent of their English: "How much you pay?" "How many hours?" and "You buy lunch?"

The Lincoln has four doors. Three door handles have hands on them. The gold-chain man begins to negotiate: "Sixty a day, but if it's less than eight hours—" The sentence is left unfinished as a Mexican yanks open a rear door and vaults into the car. The Lincoln pulls out into traffic and is gone, leaving Javier and the others to return to the wall.

"I thought there would be a regular job you go to each day," says Javier, speaking in Spanish and looking around despondently. "I thought things here were going to be easier." After two weeks in the U.S., his goal now is simply to make enough money to return home.

"The labor market is way oversaturated," says the Reverend William Harder, administrator of Saint Mary of the Assumption, where he has worked with the Mexican community for six years. "There are just too many men arriving. . . . Each year, the number of men standing on the street nearly doubles." Workers and advocates agree that day labor sparked a decade-old Mexican migration to Staten Island.

Much of L.A.'s day labor scene is built around freeways; the same is true on Staten Island. Without access to highways—where contractors can easily jump off to pick up workers—most shape-ups quickly die. It is likely that Staten Island's first day laborers—who appeared around 1990—were veterans of L.A.'s shape-ups. They chose a perfect location—just minutes from three bridges, an expressway, and the suburban sprawl of north Jersey and Staten Island, with thousands of lawns and pools in need of care.

The Mexican laborers quickly put down roots. "We went from having day laborers here to having people going back and bringing their families," says Reverend Terry Troia, executive director of Project Hospitality, which has worked closely with the workers. "Then they'd go back again and bring their sister's family. Now P.S. 20 is full of Mexican children." The result? A 428 percent increase in Mexicans on Staten Island, the largest jump of any group in any borough, according to the 2000 census.

Out on the corner, 11 men have been hired by midday. Thirty more drift away, to rooms where they will watch TV or nurse Coronas. The others say he is wasting his time, but Javier is desperate and stays on the street well into the afternoon. Around 2 p.m., a man approaches and asks if he wants to work. Javier spends the rest of the day stacking boxes at an import-export company, and in the evening, the patron, seeing that Javier is industrious, offers him a job—54 hours a week for $275 cash. Within the week, he is saving money to send home to his wife, the first payment on the new house. In less than a month, day labor has given him a route into the permanent workforce.

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