January 31, 2007
By Krista J. Kapralos
They show up seven days a week, sometimes as early as 6 a.m. Some carry backpacks, but most just have thick coats, their hands shoved deep into pockets.
For hours, they wait, hoping. As daylight emerges and cars begin to stream in and out of the Home Depot parking lot on Highway 99 in south Everett, they crane their necks, eagle-eyed for the wide rigs that usually signal the arrival of contractors who need laborers.
"We want to do something right, work at least five or six hours a day, at least," said Jose Lara, a 36-year-old Mexican immigrant who took two buses from his home in Seattle to get to the hardware store's parking lot.
Every day, sometimes as many as 20 Hispanic men gather there. When contractors drive by, some men get jobs right away. They hop into the back of a truck and hope that their pay will amount to more than $8 an hour. Sometimes, they can make $11 or $12 an hour, but for backbreaking work, they say it's not enough.
After paying to share a low-rent apartment with a few other immigrants and buying a little something to eat, there's not much left to send to family back home, said Rolando Reyes Cota, 41, who has a wife and two children in Sonora, Mexico.
But $60 or $80 for a day's work is better than nothing, which is what many of the men are left with after waiting in the lot for hours. Sometimes, the bosses abuse them, they say, refusing to give them a break or even a little food at lunchtime. At the end of a long day, the men have little recourse if a boss refuses to pay them.
Meanwhile, the state loses more than $100 million every year because of unpaid worker's compensation and other unpaid taxes, said John Littel of the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters.
"This is a huge problem, and it's bigger than we thought it was," he said.
Littel is a member of a task force of state and business leaders created last year to study what they call the "underground economy" in the construction industry. The task force recommended a series of bills that are moving through the Legislature now, meant to target contractors who hire workers off the books. A report of the task force's findings is expected to be released this month.
Another major issue with the underground economy is widespread exploitation of the workers, Littel said.
"These guys are operating without any protection whatsoever," he said.
If state lawmakers pass the task force's bills that will target unscrupulous contractors, the task force plans to spend the coming year focused on addressing exploitation, Littel said.
"Whenever there's an underground market, there's lots of potential for abuse," said Hillary Stern, a task force member and executive director of Casa Latina, a Seattle advocacy group that runs a day labor center.
Employers are required by law to pay anyone they've hired and who has completed work, Stern said, but some contractors intimidate illegal immigrants by threatening to turn them over to immigration officials.
"It is the employer's responsibility to check for papers before they hire them, but if an employer says they have no rights and threatens to deport them, how are they going to do that?" she said. "Will they call in and say, 'I broke the law, I hired someone who is undocumented.' "
But the laborers, many of whom have risked dangerous treks across the Mexico-U.S. border to become shadows in the American economy and send a little money home, say they have few options. They say that every day they spend in the Home Depot parking lot is a tightrope between deportation back to impoverished circumstances and the temptations of even more dangerous, but potentially profitable, pursuits.
"What else would I do?" Lara said. "So many people, they sell drugs. They give up. But I still have a little faith."
Nearly a third of all recently arrived Hispanic immigrants worked in construction in 2006, the year with the most recent data, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a branch of the Pew Research Center. That number could already be closer to about 40 percent, according to more recent estimates.
The housing industry grew by more than half a million jobs in 2006, and Hispanic workers were responsible for about two-thirds of that increase. They filled more than 330,000 of those new construction jobs, according to Pew.
The number of Hispanics in Washington state has grown 31 percent since 2006, and experts say the Pacific Northwest will continue to experience explosive growth of that group.
'Here, it's peaceful still'
It's impossible to know how many immigrants wait in the parking lots of the area's hardware stores, but some Hispanic men say Snohomish County is quickly becoming a destination for day laborers.
"It's burned up already in Seattle," Lara said. "The police already know we'll be there. But here, it's peaceful still."
Home Depot officials did not return requests for comment.
Snohomish County Council Chairman Dave Somers said that while state legislators are most likely to handle immigrant labor issues, local officials should acknowledge the work that illegal immigrants do in the county.
"From a personal standpoint, I'd like to set up a system to track and legitimize this," he said. "They take the kind of jobs that it seems like nobody else wants unfortunately, but they're a big part of the economy, and I'd like to see us bring this to the surface and deal with it in a more positive manner than sneaking around."
The men who wait at Home Depot say many more Hispanic men are moving to Snohomish County because they feel it's safer for them here and because of a lower cost of living.
Rolando Reyes Cota, 41, moved from Seattle to Bothell to find cheaper rent. Work as a day laborer in Snohomish County has been steady enough over the past year to support himself and send money home to Mexico.
Others plan to work in Everett for a while until they find a job on fishing boats headed to Alaska, a state some of the men say holds the promise for them that the Western U.S. once did for pioneers.
"I've done a lot, living everywhere, even Louisiana, Nevada," Robert Rojas, 20, said. "I'm going to keep going north."
Israel Suarez, 40, of Cuba, lives at the Union Gospel Mission in downtown Seattle. He takes a series of buses each morning to get to Everett.
"There's no work in Seattle because there's too many people," he said. "The managers down there complain and say we do something wrong, but we're not. We're just trying to find work."
Since Suarez came to the United States more than a decade ago, he's held all sorts of jobs, all over the country. From New York to Omaha, Neb., to Las Vegas, Suarez has done odd jobs, including collecting trash and clearing fields with a machete.
He hopes his next stop will be Alaska, where fishing boats hold the promise of a full season of regular work and a good paycheck, he said.
At about 11 a.m. on a recent morning, when Suarez hadn't found any work, he boarded a bus headed back south to Seattle.
On those disappointing days, he doesn't like to hang around the mission with other residents. Many of them don't try to find anything to do, he said.
Instead, Suarez spends those days doing the hardest work of all: one foot, in front of the other, walking through the city, trying desperately to look like he belongs.