On a warm weekday morning on 69th St. in Jackson Heights, Queens, a white pickup truck pulls over to a group of Latino day laborers waiting for work along the sidewalk. A crowd gathers around the truck and before long a couple of men jump in and the pickup drives away.
Enrique, a 50-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was not lucky enough to be among those men. For twelve years, Enrique–who like others in this story declined to give his last name for fear of being targeted by authorities–has worked all over the United States. But the economic downturn has made it almost impossible for him and many other day laborers to find a job.
Recently Enrique has only found employment on one or two days each month. At ten dollars an hour, he now earns so little that he has decided to return to Mexico as soon as he can earn enough for the bus ticket home.
Wearing a navy blue t-shirt, faded blue work trousers, black sneakers, and a tattered Mets baseball cap, Enrique looks exhausted and desperate for a job.
“In twenty days I haven’t worked once,” he said in Spanish. “If there is no work, what can you do? Nothing.”
Roberto, another undocumented immigrant from Mexico, also waits for employers along 69th St. He first arrived in the US in 1990 as a young man and has worked as a day laborer ever since. Every day he comes to look for a job, and for months has had little luck.
“This is definitely the worst year we day laborers have had,” he said. “We’ve gone months without work. There was a period where I was working one day a month. Imagine that. I didn’t even make enough for the rent. It’s been hard for all of us.”
The situation has gotten so bad that many–like Enrique–are deciding to return to their families.
“There have been many who have left,” said Roberto, “and many more who want to leave.”
According to Julissa Bisono, an organizer with Make the Road New York, a Brooklyn-based organization that fights for workplace justice and immigrant rights, says that this is a increasing trend throughout the New York region.
"Many workers have been evicted from their rooms because they cannot pay the rent," she said. "In some cases some leave back to their country because they can’t find jobs."
The economy is not the only obstacle facing day laborers. Police intimidation has increased, according to Roberto, and there have been numerous arrests of day laborers in the area, the most recent in early July. In October of 2008, the NYPD arrested ten people on the same corner where Roberto and Enrique now wait for employers.
“The police come and give tickets to us for standing there looking for work,” he said. “ It’s not right. We aren’t criminals. We just come out to look for work, to earn something to pay the rent, to send home to our families. It’s not a crime to look for work on the street.”
The NYPD declined to comment.
Cars and trucks continue to pass by the long stretch of sidewalk where some 25 men wait in groups, but none stop. A police cruiser arrives on the opposite corner and parks. The young men–also day laborers–who are leaning against the outside wall of an apartment building scurry across the street and join the rest of the men. A few minutes later the patrol car drives away.
“We see it as harassment by the police,” said Roberto. “They don’t want us here or they don’t want organizations to come and help us. We think it’s unjust, that it’s racial.”
A few blocks away on the corner Roosevelt Boulevard and 69th street, below the deafening rumble of the elevated 7 train, another group of day laborers is having better luck in their search.
Francisco and Angel, two youth in their mid-twenties from the central Mexican state of Tlaxcala, wearing matching grey shirts, blue jeans, work boots, and green baseball caps, are standing below the stairway to the elevated subway tracks. They say that the recession has made it harder to find employment.
“Before I would work every day,” said Francisco, “but now it’s just two, three times a week”.
The two live nearby in a single room they rent together for 600 dollars a month. They used to work mostly in construction and the collapse of New York’s real estate market last year hit day laborers particularly hard. Francisco says that a lot of his compatriots have already returned home, but he and Angel are not going anywhere.
“Lots of people have gone back to Mexico,” he said, “but I think that now things are getting better. Things are slowly returning to normal.”
Francisco says that jobs have been abundant recently as moving companies need extra hands during the month’s-end surge in demand.
But these days, Angel says, finding work as often requires more patience and luck than anything else.
“Some people will be out here all week and only work one day”, he said.
Just then, a moving truck screeches to a stop on the corner and two Latino men jump in. Angel and Francisco wave to the men and smile as the truck speeds off.
A few hours later, as the early afternoon sun casts a deep shadow under the tracks, Francisco and Angel continue to wait on the corner of Roosevelt and 69th, hoping for work that may not come. But tomorrow is another day.