Working one day at a time
Immigrants' advocates, critics say day laborers'
plight reveals a failed system
September 18, 2005
Lisa Kocian 508-820-4231 The Boston Globe West
FRAMINGHAM -- It's about 7 on a recent morning, and two dozen men are waiting in front of a Brazilian bakery in downtown Framingham across from the town hall.

They are hoping to be picked up.  Hoping to get a day's work.

Several are reading Jornal Esporte Total, a Portuguese-language sports weekly published in Cambridge.  A few have lunches packed in plastic shopping bags.  They wear work boots and running shoes, and their clothes are splattered with paint.  Almost no one speaks any English.

Most just laugh when asked if they have any healthcare benefits.

Milton Martins, 52, takes a sip from a coffee cup and says he would like to work today in landscaping or painting.

He has come to the country from Brazil on a tourist visa that will soon expire, but he plans to stay for about two years to save enough money for his three children's education.

"It's so hard to be here," Martins says through an interpreter.  "I miss my family and friends all the time."

It is a scene that is being repeated around the country: immigrants who have few other options looking for someone to give them some decent work.  And both immigration advocates and critics say it is a sign of an immigration system that's broken.

There are hundreds of spots like the bakery in Framingham nationwide, according to a study from the University of California at Los Angeles, "In Pursuit of the American Dream: Day Labor in the Greater Washington D.C. Region."  The report, released in June, was based on interviews with 476 day laborers.  The researchers have interviewed day laborers in 143 cities and plan to publish more of their findings in coming months.

In the Washington area, the report found day laborers reporting a long list of work-related problems: being denied food or breaks, a lack of safety training, and difficulty getting paid.  In fact, 58 percent said that at least once they had either not been paid or had received bad checks from employers.

Several of the men interviewed in front of the bakery -- all of whom said they were originally from Brazil -- said they had been denied wages they had earned.  Some pointed to their own countrymen as the worst culprits.

Jose Teixeira, 50, who had stopped by to chat with friends, said he quit working for Brazilians after he had problems getting paid.  "The Brazilians here are the enemy of the Brazilians because they want cheap labor," he said.  "It's not good to come here anymore."

In Framingham five years, he has been working as a truck driver for the last three, and he hopes to make enough to help support the small cattle farm his family runs in Brazil.

The state has seen a wave of immigration from Brazil in recent years, with Framingham a major magnet for the new arrivals.  Although no one knows how many Brazilians are in the state illegally, the Allston-basedz Brazilian Immigrant Center recently estimated that about 160,000 undocumented Brazilians live in the state.

Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said it's the lack of documentation that makes the immigrant workers vulnerable.

"The reason people are out there on the corner is either they have a visa that doesn't allow them to work legally or they're undocumented," he said.

He wants the immigration system reformed "so people are not putting themselves out there to be exploited."

"Is the realistic solution to find, detain, and deport every illegal immigrant in the country, or do we allow people to emerge from underground and become tax-paying community residents, where they are able to find that American dream?" he said.  "The realistic solution is allowing people to earn the privilege of getting in line for citizenship."

Noorani and other immigrant advocates support a bill filed recently by senators Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona.  It would let many undocumented workers take regular jobs, allow them to eventually apply for permanent legal residency, provide more English language instruction, and step up border enforcement.

Critics of illegal immigration also see a problem with the day labor phenomenon, but they offer a different solution.

Jack Martin, special project director for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the government should focus on denying jobs to people who are here illegally.

He agreed with Noorani that it isn't practical to immediately track down and deport all undocumented workers.  But he said workers wouldn't keep crossing the borders, if they couldn't find work.

"Don't build it, and they won't come," he said.

Martin pointed to a federal law that makes it illegal for an employer to knowingly hire an undocumented immigrant.  He said the government hasn't been tough enough in enforcing that law.

Employers may feel like they have to hire these workers to stay competitive, he said, but Congress should level the playing field for everyone by consistently enforcing the law.

What about the argument from some businesspeople that illegal immigrants are the backbone of our economy, doing work no one else wants to do?

They are stealing jobs, said Martin.  He acknowledged that wages and prices for services such as landscaping would go up if only citizens could take the jobs, but he said that's the way it should be.

"The South thought it was essential they have slavery in order to maintain their standard of living, but that was antithetical to principles of our country, and we ended slavery," said Martin.  "And the concept that we have to have large numbers of exploited foreign workers in order to maintain the standard of living of some people is antithetical to our fundamental values."

One local landscaper has found a way around the dilemma.  Roger Sturgis, who owns a Framingham landscaping company, hires legal workers from Jamaica through a government-sponsored visa program.

But the route he's chosen is not easy, he said.  The program was cut back last year so he never got fully staffed.  This year, the program was restored.  But there wouldn't be enough workers to go around if all the landscaping businesses in the area suddenly sought legal workers, he said.

Sturgis estimated that 90 percent of his competitors use illegal workers.  "They're frustrated," he said.  "They would rather hire legal, documented people, but they can't find them."

A handful of Framingham residents have complained about the bakery being used as an informal hiring site, but it hasn't been a huge source of conflict in town as it has elsewhere in the country.

John Steacie, a Town Meeting member from Precinct 13, near downtown, said he's not too concerned about it, but he wondered if trucks stopping at the bakery might be a traffic problem.

"It would be nice if they were out back in the parking lot waiting to get picked up, because they are kind of in the way sometimes," he said, adding he hasn't really heard anyone complaining about it.  "I guess they have a right to be on the sidewalk."

Most of the men in front of the bakery said they were in the country illegally.  Many wouldn't give their names.  They spoke of living in tight quarters in Framingham with several other Brazilian men, of leaving behind wives and children.  And they said they were worried that work is drying up.

A couple said they are having problems with their "coyotes."  The coyotes helped them sneak over the Mexican border and are still demanding thousands of dollars in fees from them as a fee.

The American system has spawned the coyotes, who lure workers to the United States, advertising easy money from jobs that don't always materialize.

"Most of the people who are here," said Gilberto Zanolli Parana, who was among the waiting men, "if they didn't have the debt with the coyotes, they would go home today."

Globe correspondent Eduardo A. de Oliveira contributed to this report.

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