Labor Center Shunned for Higher Pay on Streets

Times Staff Writer

When Orange police recently arrested undocumented day laborers in a Home Depot parking lot, the incident touched off the usual reprimands and praises from different sides of the illegal immigration debate.

But it also raised a question:

Why do day laborers, many of them illegal immigrants, risk arrest and possible deportation when job centers -- including one in Orange -- offer them a safer alternative?

The answer is a mix of economic realities, ignorance and good old American self-reliance.


On any given day, dozens of men linger for hours on a stretch of Orange’s Chapman Avenue in search of work. It is a routine repeated on street corners and in parking lots across the country.

Nancy Ung, owner of Friendly Donut & Yogurt Shop, sees them every day. Some come inside her store. Ung, a Cambodian immigrant, said she doesn’t mind, but wondered if they wouldn’t be better served at a city-run day labor center about a mile away. The center, like others nationwide, matches employers with day laborers and does not ask job seekers about their citizenship.

“I tell them: ‘There’s a center to get you a job,’ ” said Ung, who speaks Spanish. “ ‘You can even sit down there and you don’t have to sit on a wall.’ They just smile and don’t say much.”

Outside Ung’s shop, Carlos Benavides, 22, was biding his time in the parking lot. “We have to take this risk,” said Benavides. “It’s about survival.”

The risk became real for eight men last month in a Home Depot parking lot. They were arrested on suspicion of soliciting work in an open area, which is prohibited by city ordinance. They were turned over to federal immigration authorities after they couldn’t show proof of residency.

A ninth man, Leo Donati, was also arrested, but he showed police his California driver’s license. He was cited and released, authorities said.


Donati said he was aware of the city-run day labor center, but that he could make more money striking out on his own.

Day laborers say job centers, many of which have preset wages and a first-come, first-served policy, can be restricting. They prefer dealing directly with the employers and negotiating rates on the spot.

“You can be seen here,” said Fernando Lopez, 29, who has been coming to Chapman Avenue for two years, since losing a handyman job. “If you get to the [job] center late ... you don’t get a job.”

Only about 21% of day laborers nationwide seek jobs at formal job centers run by cities and nonprofit organizations, according a study recently released by UCLA. There are 62 such job centers in the country.

Some day laborers mistakenly believe that they need to show they are legal U.S. residents to use such centers. Others are unaware of the centers or don’t have transportation.

But economics is the biggest factor, according to day laborers and those who run the centers.

There aren’t enough jobs to go around, whether on the streets or the centers, said Jim Lamb, Huntington Beach’s business development manager who oversees the city’s day labor center.

The center places about 15 of the 20 or so job seekers who come in every day, Lamb said. He said there are many more on the streets, but if they came to the center, “we would just have more unemployed people,” he said.

Orange officials say they could do a better job of spreading the word about their day labor center to employers and job seekers. But, some say, it is unlikely to change the economic reality that drives many workers to the streets.

The Orange center serves about 65 laborers each day, officials said.

An estimated 200 crowd the sidewalks and parking lots on Chapman Avenue.

On a recent day, center coordinator Marisol Rojas said she expected to place five to 10 men in jobs. A few others may connect with previous employers.

Fermin Cruz arrived at 3:30 a.m. to be the first in line. By 9 a.m., he still had no work.

“I come here because I’m safer,” said Cruz. “Besides, I feel like someone cares here.”

Hipolito Tijera Martinez, 53, a welder, agreed: “I think I’m less likely to be deported here. But then again, it might be just as well. There’s just not enough work and at least it would be a free ride back to Mexico.”