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U.S.: Tough Laws Just One Peril for Day Labourers

Valeria Fernández

PHOENIX, Arizona, Aug 4 2010 (IPS) - Ovidio Perez’s brother was planning to return to Guatemala because of a new Arizona law that made it a state crime to be an undocumented immigrant. He returned, but in a coffin.

“My brother used to say, ‘I came here to work because I have a son and at least I want to leave him a place to live when he turns 18’,” said Perez.

Both Perez and his brother worked as day labourers – in Spanish they call themselves “jornaleros”. They stand on street corners of Phoenix looking for daily work that could pay anywhere between eight and 10 dollars per hour. They did anything from painting houses to building retaining walls on backyards.

It was during one of those jobs that Rosalio Perez, 40, an undocumented immigrant, lost his life. He fell from a palm tree he was trimming on Jul. 24, just a few days before the news broke that a judge had blocked part of the Arizona law, known as SB 1070. One provision she struck down would have made it a crime for a person to look for work on the streets.

Yet for an occupation that is already hazardous, a new layer of difficulty would be added through parts of SB 1070 that did take effect. These provisions would make it a crime for day labourers to impede traffic while looking for work and would result in fines to their contractors. People that transport them could also be charged for harbouring undocumented immigrants.

Groups like the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) say workers like their members are already at risk when it comes to human right violations and this would make them even more vulnerable. That’s why they filed a legal challenge against the law, and considering whether to file another.

“This is one of the reasons we are not claiming victory,” said Pablo Alvarado, executive director of NDLON. Alvarado argues that the Barack Obama administration is partly to blame for the situation in Arizona.

Through the use of programmes like 287(g) to deputise local police to enforce immigration laws, the federal government has opened the doors for laws like SB 1070.

“What this does is [create] more consternation, horror in the community and distrust towards the police and it doesn’t help to fight crime. People won’t cooperate if they are victims of a crime,” Alvarado said. “You either criminalise or legalise, but the Obama administration is criminalising.”

On a popular street corner outside Home Depot, a home improvement store in central Phoenix, day labourers are already feeling the effects of the law.

“Customers are being scared away,” said Gerardo Perez, a day labourer from Chiapas, Mexico. “They are afraid they will be fined.”

Miguel Resendiz, an immigrant from Morelos, Mexico who also works as a day labourer, said he would not leave because of the new law. After all, he knows the threat has always been there through the frequent raids conducted by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office.

When questioned about how he would handle SB 1070, Sheriff Joe Arpaio referred to another kind of arrest: the one he has been conducting on businesses that hire undocumented workers.

“We do arrest day labourers, over 1,000 in the business when the employers hire them because it is cheaper to pay them, the illegals,” he said.

Arpaio’s deputies have been at the forefront of arrests not only at workplaces but also of day labourers on the streets. Three years ago a local businessman hired off-duty deputies to chase away day labourers from his property. When the controversial news broke, Arpaio decided to launch sweeps in the area, bringing a larger contingent of deputies to target day labourers.

The impact of the new law may not only be felt on the streets. Police agencies that don’t enforce these provisions could face lawsuits and hefty fines.

Senator Russell Pearce, the sponsor of SB 1070, said the bill was a “success” despite the federal judge’s decision. Pearce is prepared to sue any agency that doesn’t enforce it.

“Sanctuary policies are illegal in the state of Arizona,” he said in reference to what he considers norms in police departments that may limit the instances in which a police officer could inquire about the immigration status of a person.

“In this bill, we the people will sue our government if they fail to enforce our laws to their full extent, that’s also in the bill,” he said. “We have an obligation to the nation to defend this border, to defend the rule of law and to stop it here.”

While is still unclear how law enforcement will implement the remaining provisions of SB 1070, including others that make it a misdemeanor to transport undocumented immigrants in a vehicle, some groups are focused on education.

“No one is going to come and save us. People will have to protect themselves,” said Alvarado.”We will win if there is a strong organising effort in the community to monitor the police.”

According to a survey conducted in 2005 among day labourers across the country, workplace injuries are common. One in five day labourers has suffered a work-related injury, and more than half of those who were injured during the year the survey took place did not receive medical care.

The research conducted by the University of California in Los Angeles also indicated that day labourers regularly suffer employer abuse.

“It is dangerous to work here, you start a job never knowing where you’ll end up,” explained Perez.

Perez shipped his brother’s remains to San Marcos, Guatemala thanks to donations from the NDLON and the Guatemalan Consulate. He doesn’t want to return just yet, because he needs time to mourn. He wants to reunite with his family at a time that they can smile and welcome the son that came back alive.

“I have to move on because what happened can’t be changed,” said Perez.

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