Mothers stroll past the Bay Parkway Community Job Center. John Moore / Getty Images
But advocates and organizers are not put off by the harsh realities of life and work on the margins. “Even with this dog-eat-dog reality, organizing is essential,” said Valeria Treves, the executive director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), which has offices near the Roosevelt Avenue corner. Last year, NICE began a new venture to host and dispatch workers from its offices early in the mornings, giving the informal process a more formal, better organized setting. “It’s a much better alternative to the corner, but we don’t have a whole lot of room here to bring in enough workers off the streets,” she said, indicating the cramped offices.
In 2006, a New York City panel commissioned a study on this immigrant workforce. Two of the key recommendations were to build day labor centers to act as intermediaries between job seekers and their casual employers, and to give the workers the dignity of shelter. NICE and other immigrant advocacy groups are still waiting for funding for these centers to materialize. In the meantime, they are working with the limited space and resources they have.
One of the most established centers in the city is run by the WJP on Bay Parkway in Brooklyn. Although it is nothing more than a humble trailer, it makes a big difference to the member workers.
On one bitterly cold morning, the center was packed with men, huddled around the heater, sipping freshly brewed coffee. “It’s much better in here,” said Luis Morales, a soft-spoken Colombian immigrant, who wears his years of day laboring on his lined face.
But the center does much more for workers like Morales than provide free coffee and heat. “When you get picked up on a corner,” he said, “they can make you work all day with no break and then maybe not even pay. Here, we always get paid.”
Another reason the centers are important for workers is to decrease their risk of deportation. Under the Secure Communities program, which was established in 2008, police and sheriffs’ departments in most jurisdictions across the country are authorized to enforce immigration law. “Now they don’t have to wait for people to commit a crime to arrest them,” said Pablo Alvarado, NDLON’s executive director. “They can ask anyone for papers and then arrest them based on their immigration status. The corners are the first places where police are experimenting with these new powers.” NDLON’s highest priority, according to Alvarado, is to stop these arrests and subsequent deportations — before immigration reform finally passes and many of the workers might get a chance to get legalized.
In the meantime, these men and women continue to show up at the corners every day, ready to work. At the Roosevelt Avenue parada, by the time 10 a.m. approaches, most of the remaining workers already know that their chances of getting a job that day are fading. They stay on anyway. Sometimes they stay until dark. “You have to stay positive,” said Sislema. “You have to believe that tomorrow will be better.”