The way Omar Sierra remembers it, dozens of day laborers gathered in the Kmart parking lot that day more than 15 years ago. A county mobile health clinic arrived with a mariachi band and free food and offered HIV tests to those waiting for work.
Sierra got in line and sat for his test. He heard a commotion, turned and saw men running. He thought someone was offering a job and wondered whether he should go with them. Then he saw the immigration agents. And he ran as fast as he could.
More than a dozen day laborers were arrested and deported that day in February 1996 in the City of Industry. Those who weren’t, including Sierra, returned to the lot the next day to look for work. This time, they were greeted by an organizer who wanted to enlist workers to fight back.
Sierra, who now lives in Texas, and hundreds of current and former day laborers from across the country gather this week in Los Angeles for a national conference to measure their progress since day laborers began a concerted effort to organize themselves two decades ago.
They will discuss wage theft and worker safety, and they will reflect on the role that day laborers, often seen as little more than loosely banded groups of men looking for a day’s work, have had in challenging local anti-solicitation ordinances, state anti-illegal immigration laws and federal enforcement.
The conference comes as the national immigration and labor debate has become polarized, with tough crackdowns in Arizona, Alabama and other states, and heated rhetoric in the Republican presidential primary campaign. And in ways that activists couldn’t have imagined when they began organizing street corners, the day laborers who gathered this week are prepared to fight back on a national scale.
Sierra, who is now an office worker, came to the conference at the request of Pablo Alvarado, the organizer he met the day after the raid. With his encouragement, Sierra wrote a corrido about the arrests and formed a group of day laborers called Los Jornaleros del Norte. They toured the country singing at rallies and protests and providing the musical background for organizing efforts. And on Monday he and others played the songs that propelled their movement while workers and organizers danced in the main conference room.
At the time of the City of Industry raid, communities throughout Southern California were looking to clamp down on day laborers, accused of harassing residents, littering and creating unsafe conditions.
With the help of immigrant rights groups, day laborers began challenging efforts to arrest or cite workers in city after city, said Alvarado, who is now the director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which organized the conference. They also managed to persuade several communities to build or allow worker centers where day laborers could register, agree on wages and use down time for classes or other activities.
In the years since, worker centers have been built from Pomona to Staten Island, N.Y. And day laborers have become among the most recognizable faces in the nation’s battle over illegal immigration.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks to restrict immigration, has encouraged local activists to fight back against such centers and the local governments that support them.
Large numbers of day laborers are not eligible to work in the U.S., and they make work difficult for those who are, said the group’s spokesman, Ira Mehlman.
“You have these day labor centers where they’re hiring people essentially off the street,” he said. “Over the years you have the creation of a situation where people who used to do these jobs, and do them legally, can’t compete.”
Day labor groups, in turn, have sought to use their visibility to influence immigration issues on a national level. The National Day Laborer Organizing Network has helped lead the challenge to the Secure Communities immigration enforcement program. Its local groups have challenged state and city efforts to combat illegal immigration and pushed government leaders to adopt pro-immigrant initiatives. And a federal court decision striking down as unconstitutional an anti-solicitation ordinance in Redondo Beach was spearheaded by the group.
The city appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, and the group’s lawyers expect to know this week whether the court will take up the case.
Over the years, Sierra was able to get his legal status adjusted. The days of earning $4 or $5 an hour and not knowing when a job might come are behind him, he said.
But for every person like him who fixes his legal status or gets a permanent job, “there’s always another worker ready to take his place,” he said.
“We’ve accomplished a lot. But there’s still a lot more to be done,” he said.