Life Is Harder for Illegals Since Amnesty

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 is helping more than 3 million foreigners gain legal status.

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

Martinez and others in his position illustrate one of the emerging changes brought about by the amnesty program, now more than 2 years old. While 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 numbers of “new illegals” continue to swell as more cross the U.S.-Mexico border, exacerbating job competition.

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


“I’m not sure how much longer I can go on like this,” Martinez explained recently on another unwanted day off as he spent time washing clothes in a polluted stream, killing time at the crude lean-to beneath a stand of eucalyptus where he resides. “I need to find work, to make money to eat.”

The amnesty program has contributed to the creation of a kind of two-tiered caste system in the migrant camps of northern San Diego County. Atop this new configuration are one-time illegal aliens who have gained legal U.S resident status via the amnesty program. Those who remain undocumented now occupy the bottom position, subject to arrest, scrambling to find work in a more competitive market, more fearful than ever to speak out against abuses of minimum wage laws and other workplace violations.

“You can visualize a sub sub-class, 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, originally from Mexico’s Oaxaca state, who are 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. Perhaps most visible are the legions of the new undocumented 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.


‘Sub-Class of Workers’

“What you see is a strengthening or legitimizing of the sub-class 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.”

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.

Apart from resorting to corner pick-up employment, some illegal workers in the post-amnesty period have also attempted to skirt the need for documents by turning to self-employment--vending 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.

U.S. 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 U.S. 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.”

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

Like Third World Slums

The desperation of the new illegal population appears particularly visible in northern San Diego 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.


Why do they still 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 daily minimum wage in much of Mexico.

Last week, in several camps housing hundreds of workers near San Diego’s northern limits, those who remain undocumented spoke of 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 likely 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 due to an extended visit to his family in Mexico.

Many illegal laborers have relied on the help of friends and relatives who preceded them here from villages and cities throughout Mexico and Central America. Typically, camp residents in northern San Diego 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 their common birthplaces.

Work Is Scarce

Everywhere, there is talk of the plight of those who remain without papers. Odilon Jimenez, a 28-year-old father of three from Guerrero state, 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 playing 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 mulling going back after being here a month with little work, said Calleja, 27, who holds an amnesty card.

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


When Wilfrido Martinez, a 24-year-old father of a young daughter and former restaurant worker in Mexico City, 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 home town. 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 via amnesty, have helped Martinez with food and provided him with a sheltered space to sleep, although all have had difficulties finding steady work in the currently saturated agricultural labor market. But none has had as little success securing jobs 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 four miles through the chaparral and area streets, seeking day employment with assorted contractors and at several San Diego street corners. While the two brothers, both amnesty recipients, openly approach vehicles offering work, Martinez tends to remain in the background, his eyes shifting nervously from left to right, 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 congregate near an open field that offers a quick escape route should immigration agents arrive.

After several hours and precious few opportunities for work, Martinez and the two brothers give up for the day, deciding to return to camp. “We’ll go back tomorrow,” he said with faint hope afterward as he heated corn tortillas on an open fire near his shack, preparing to pass the time on yet another jobless day.