In Amnesty’s Shadow: Life for the Undocumented Grows Harder

Times Staff Writer

Wilfrido Martinez is an illegal alien in post-amnesty America, and he can tell you that things haven’t been easy for those left behind by the law that has helped more than 3 million foreigners gain legal status.

Although many newly legalized laborers have managed to secure regular employment with area contractors, growers and nursery owners, Martinez and other still-undocumented workers who reside in the rugged migrant labor camps of northern San Diego County have been largely shut out of any semblance of steady work, forced instead to wait each morning along suburban street corners seeking erratic day labor.

And, although those with amnesty can openly seek work without fear of U. S. immigration authorities, those without papers must still slink about the streets and in the brush, ready to dart away from the green and white vans of la migra, the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Flip Side of the Program Is Emerging


Martinez and others in his position illustrate the emerging flip side of the amnesty program, now more than 2 years old. Although newly legalized workers generally live in a much-improved atmosphere, openly seeking work and often finding it, their undocumented brethren have typically found that things are worse than ever. And the number of “new illegals” continues to swell every day as more and more cross the U. S.-Mexico border and exacerbate job competition.

In his month in the United States, Martinez has worked no more than six days, hardly enough to buy his food, he said.

“I’m not sure how much longer I can go on like this,” he said recently on yet another unwanted day off as he washed clothes in a polluted stream, killing time at the crude lean-to beneath a stand of eucalyptus

trees where he lives. “I need to find work, to make money to eat.”


Thus, a trend long predicted by some appears to be unfolding in the San Diego camps, and an embryonic division of the have-nots has begun to emerge. The amnesty program has contributed to the creation of a kind of two-tiered caste system among workers seeking the minimum-wage jobs that have long supported the unskilled immigrant population.

On top in this new configuration are one-time illegal aliens who have gained legal U. S. residence status through amnesty. The people at the bottom, the ones who remain undocumented, are subject to arrest and often scramble to find work in a more competitive market. They are more fearful than ever to speak out against abuses of minimum-wage laws and other workplace violations.

A Sub-Subclass

“You can visualize a sub-subclass, a class that in some sense would be even more vulnerable than the old category of undocumented worker,” said Michael Kearney, a professor of anthropology at UC Riverside who has studied California’s population of Mixtec Indians, who are originally from Mexico’s Oaxaca state and among the poorest of the recent wave of immigrants. “It’s a way of segmenting the work force even more insidiously.”

Immigrant advocates say the splintering of the labor pool developing in San Diego is also taking hold in other communities nationwide, both urban and rural, presaging a bleak future for those who continue to arrive without papers.

Perhaps most visible are the legions of new undocumented workers who have turned to the booming Southern California street-corner job markets, augmenting the crowds who assemble each day at known gathering spots in the hope of obtaining employment from passing motorists. The numbers of homeless undocumented workers who sleep beneath freeway overpasses and in the fields is also believed to be rising in many areas.

“What you see is a strengthening or legitimizing of the subclass of workers who are in essence working side by side with U. S. citizens or amnesty aliens and not commanding the same pay or working conditions,” said Charles Wheeler, director of the National Center for Immigrants’ Rights, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group. “There’s a lot more competition for these minimum-wage jobs. . . . The result is that, in fact, more people are at the mercy of employers than ever before.”

Consequently, there is fear of even greater exploitation of the undocumented. Indeed, workers in San Diego say that some drive-by employers not asking for papers are offering as little as $20 for a full day’s work, well below the legal minimum. Many job seekers cannot afford to say no.


Sometimes Self-Employed

Apart from resorting to such pickup employment, some illegal workers in the post-amnesty period have attempted to skirt the need for documents by turning to self-employment--selling flowers, fruits and other products on the streets of cities from San Diego to Los Angeles to New York. Others have purchased false papers, although such forged documents appear to be more in evidence in urban areas than in the rural enclaves populated by field workers.

Immigration officials say the difficulties faced by the new illegal workers, however unfortunate on a human level, are a sign that the recently enacted immigration control laws are achieving results.

“We’re not trying to create misery,” said Harold Ezell, Western regional commissioner for the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service. “But the word has got to get out there that there’s no reason to come (across the border) anymore unless you have documentation to work.”

However, INS officials concede that the continued high numbers of illegal border crossers mean that the new statutes have a long way to go before reducing illegal immigration to more manageable levels. Immigration authorities are recording almost 1,200 arrests a day in the San Diego area alone, down a third from the highest pre-amnesty levels but still a huge number.

The desperation of the new illegal population appears particularly visible in North County, where thousands of homeless laborers, mostly Mexican nationals, have long squatted in primitive dwellings more characteristic of Third World slums than a thriving, upper-middle-class community of rolling golf courses and $300,000 homes.

Hesitant to Move On

Unable to afford the high rents in the area, many newly legalized residents say, they have little choice but to remain squatters, although their presence has generated considerable opposition from nearby homeowners. Those without relatives or hometown contacts in the United States--the critical immigrant “networks"--are hesitant to strike out on their own to new areas where there may be more work.


Not long ago, most every worker in San Diego-area fields was undocumented, so everyone competed for the limited job pool on an equal basis. But amnesty has changed all that, resulting in legal status for a sizable number, perhaps even a majority, of area field hands. Field work is scarce for everyone these days, but the crunch has made life particularly difficult for the new undocumented.

In the San Diego area, relatively recent arrivals such as those from the newer “sending” areas--notably Mexico City and the Mexican states of Guerrero, Mexico and Oaxaca, as well as Central America--are finding that being undocumented is a greater handicap than ever.

There is a palpable sense of desperation among many, and their difficulties are compounded by a general oversupply of field labor throughout California. Some have returned to their homelands, and others, including Martinez, say they are contemplating the move, although new laborers with no prospects for amnesty arrive daily.

Why do they continue to come in such numbers?

“In Mexico,” explained one recent arrival in a San Diego camp, “one works hard all day and doesn’t even earn enough to buy a chicken to feed one’s family.” In the United States, immigrant laborers fortunate enough to find work can earn $5 an hour--more than the minimum wage for an entire day in much of Mexico.

Bemoaned Their Bad Luck

Last week, in several camps housing hundreds of workers near San Diego’s northern city limits, those without documents bemoaned their bad luck in not having qualified for the agricultural amnesty program, which raised the possibility of legal status for any laborer who performed at least 90 days of farm work between May, 1985, and May, 1986. (The more publicized general amnesty program applied to those undocumented residents who had lived continuously in the United States since Jan. 1, 1982.)

“Without papers, it’s very difficult to find any work,” said Ebodio Brito, a stocky, 29-year-old father of two, who, like many others here, hails from the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. Brito said he probably would have qualified for the farm-worker amnesty program--he had worked as a field hand throughout the West for several years--but he missed the sign-up deadline because of an extended visit to his family in Mexico.

Many illegal laborers have relied on the help of friends and relatives who often preceded them here from small ranchitos, villages and cities throughout Mexico and Central America. Typically, camp residents in North County, the great majority of whom are men, seek mutual support by constructing their dwellings of scrap wood, tin and plastic in close-knit clusters based on family ties or common birthplaces.

Everywhere, there is talk of the plight of those who remain without papers. Odilon Jimenez, a 28-year-old father of three from Guerrero, said he had been in the United States for three months and had worked a total of about 10 days.

Victor Calleja, speaking one recent evening as he stood near makeshift soccer and basketball areas in the camp, said one of his undocumented cousins had recently returned to Mexico because of the lack of work. A second cousin, also without papers, was considering going back after being here a month with little work, said Calleja, 27, who has an amnesty card.

“But they keep arriving,” Calleja said, as others nearby nodded in agreement. “Every day there are more new ones.”

Wilfrido Martinez, the 24-year-old father of a young daughter, formerly worked in a restaurant in Mexico City. When he arrived at the border a month ago on his first trip to the United States, he immediately headed to a camp in San Diego where he knew several friends from his hometown. He now resides in a cluster of several hand-built dwellings, along with five brothers of the De la Cruz family, ages 18 to 39, who, like Martinez, hail from San Andres Timilpan, a village in the central state of Mexico. The five, all of whom became legal residents through the amnesty program, have helped Martinez with food and given him a sheltered place to sleep, although all have had difficulty finding steady work. But none has had as little success as Martinez, hampered as he is by his undocumented status.

Each day, he and several of the De la Cruz brothers arise before dawn and walk up to 4 miles through the chaparral and streets, seeking day employment from assorted contractors and at several San Diego street corners where both the newly legalized and the undocumented gather. Although the brothers openly approach vehicles offering work, Martinez tends to remain in the background, his eyes shifting nervously, alert for the arrival of immigration authorities.

Half a block down the street, apart from the rest of the job seekers, a group of young undocumented men congregates near an open field that offers a quick escape route should la migra arrive.

After several hours and precious few opportunities for work, Martinez and the brothers give up for the day, deciding to return to camp.

“We’ll go back tomorrow,” Martinez said with faint hope later as he heated corn tortillas on an open fire near his shack, preparing to pass the time on yet another jobless day.