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New immigration law, economy means less for day laborers

Just a few years ago, when the economy was booming, the area around the Home Depot on Thomas Road and 36th Street in east Phoenix was packed with a couple of hundred men congregating on sidewalks and street corners soliciting work as day laborers.

Day laborers, mostly undocumented Mexican immigrants, also proliferated in other areas around the Valley, places like Avenida del Yaqui in Guadalupe, 43rd Avenue and Camelback Road in west Phoenix and Saguaro Boulevard in Fountain Hills.

But drive by any of those locations now, and only a handful of day laborers are left. And no longer do they rush up to vehicles en masse, waving their hands in a desperate bid to get hired. Now, they are more likely to keep a lower profile, leaning against a tree or sitting on a milk crate.

There are several reasons for the change. Arizona’s slumping economy has dried up the demand for day laborers, who typically are hired for yard cleaning, moving, tree cutting, construction and other jobs. Many have left Arizona to look for work in other states, or they have given up and returned to Mexico.

And the state’s crackdown on illegal immigration also is taking a toll, including parts of Arizona’s tough new immigration law that took effect July 29.

A federal judge blocked key parts of the law from taking effect but left in place a provision that makes it a crime in Arizona to stop a motor vehicle to pick up day laborers or for day laborers to get in a motor vehicle if either action impedes traffic. The law also makes it a crime to transport illegal immigrants if another crime is committed.

“Things were already terrible. With the law, it’s only gotten worse,” said Arturo Aguilar, a 29-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico City.

Aguilar was among the 20 day laborers standing in the Home Depot parking lot on Thomas Road one recent morning, waiting for work. It had been six days since his last job, he said.

State Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who sponsored the House version of Senate Bill 1070, said one of the law’s intentions was to prevent the “highly disruptive situation that occurred at Pruitt’s.”

In December 2007, day laborers congregating in front of Pruitt’s furniture store and other businesses on Thomas Road near the Home Depot ignited a dispute that dragged on for two months and propelled Arizona’s battle over illegal immigration into the national spotlight. The furniture store became a flashpoint in the illegal-immigration debate after it hired off-duty sheriff’s deputies to chase away day laborers from its parking lot, leading to demonstrations and counterdemonstrations.

Kavanagh said the law is also aimed at cracking down on the hiring of illegal immigrants because most day laborers tend to be undocumented people who work for cash and therefore don’t pay income taxes. The people who hire them also skip out on worker’s compensation payments, he said.

Kavanagh said he has noticed the decrease in the number of day laborers. About 20 to 30 day laborers used to congregate every morning on Saguaro Boulevard near the Red Rock gas station in Fountain Hills. Kavanagh said he hasn’t seen any lately.

“Perhaps the day-labor law, the decrease in jobs and the message that SB 1070 has sent to the illegal-immigrant community had driven them away for good,” he said.

Salvador Reza, a day- labor advocate for Puente, a Phoenix human-rights group, said he has been warning day laborers about the law.

He says the law is so vague that police could arrest day laborers for impeding traffic just for standing on the corner or raising their hand.

“To me, that leaves a huge door open (for le- gal interpretation),” Reza said.

But law-enforcement officials say the law is clear. Police can’t arrest day laborers just for soliciting work.

“The key consideration is they have to be impeding traffic. It is legal for them to solicit work,” said Sgt. Tommy Thompson, a spokesman for the Phoenix Police Department.

U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton’s July 28 ruling was in response to a Department of Justice lawsuit that argues that much of the Arizona law is unconstitutional because it infringes on federal authority to enforce immigration laws.

Bolton blocked several key provisions, including one that compelled officers engaged in a lawful stop, detention or arrest to, when practicable, ask about a person’s legal status when reasonable suspicion exists that the person is in the U.S. illegally.

Bolton has not ruled on other lawsuits challenging the law, including one by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

That lawsuit claims the day-labor provision is unconstitutional because it conflicts with the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and expression.

“We are confident that that section will ultimately be stricken,” said Chris Newman, the legal coordinator for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “The act of making oneself available for work is at its core an act of expression.”

Many of the day laborers interviewed for this story said they previously worked for construction or landscaping companies. They resorted to day-labor work after they lost their jobs, some because of the economy, others after a state law took effect in January 2008 that sanctions employers caught knowingly hiring illegal immigrants and requires them to run Social Security numbers of new employees though a federal electronic worker-verification system.

Aguilar, the day laborer in front of the Home Depot in east Phoenix, said a few years ago he sometimes got hired twice in the same day, once early in the morning and then again in the afternoon. Now, he said, he’s lucky if he gets hired twice in one week.

Rafael Mejia, a 52-year-old undocumented immigrant from Guadalajara, Mexico, said he thinks the new law has chased away many day laborers.

Gov. Jan Brewer signed the law April 23.

On a recent morning, Mejia was among only five day laborers sitting on milk crates in the parking lot of the Mercado plaza in Guadalupe, where day laborers used to line the streets.

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