Herding People

When undocumented workers gather to wait for jobs at the city's first day-labor center, complaints about them should subside. But don't count on it.

Joe Fendler can't believe what he's hearing. Sitting before him is a group of people he claims are planning to encourage public defecation, urination, intoxication, intimidation, burglary and littering -- not to mention illegal immigration -- by rewarding a bunch of wetbacks. To make matters worse, they're going to use tax dollars to pay for it. He can barely sit still.

The topic at hand is a day-labor center scheduled to open on 25th Street and Bell Road in January, the first of its kind in Arizona. The initial 18 months of its operation will be funded, in part, by $200,000 of the city's money.

Many see it as a long-overdue effort to address one of the most neglected and exploited segments of the population. Some, like Fendler, see it as a criminal act.

The center proposes a solution to complaints such as Fendler's. It aims to resolve the problems hundreds of men milling around on sidewalks generate by moving them to a centralized location. Upon completion, the leased site will remain fairly simple, providing little more than shade structures, lighting and portable toilets for workers. "We're addressing a community problem," says Salvador Reza of Tonatierra, an indigenous rights group backing the center, "but no matter what we do, there will be people who object because of the immigration issue."

Audience members at the forum are mostly members and invitees of the sponsor, the Arizona Latino Media Association. They have just watched a documentary about a successful day-labor center in Austin, Texas. Now, a panel of day laborers and community organizers is discussing what's in store for Phoenix.

Perry Baker, assistant to Councilwoman Peggy Neely, is here representing the city. He is aware that the issue is controversial; six months of hate mail has told him as much.

At its core, the center is about dignity, he explains -- "dignity for the businesses that surround it, dignity for the workers, dignity for the neighborhood, and dignity for the employers."

Fendler sighs loudly. "Christ, I need a drink," he says, not quite under his breath.

Hector, a 40-year-old day laborer from Sinaloa, takes his turn at the mike, speaking articulately in Spanish about general goals of the center.

Hector says an organized, centralized staging area will alleviate the friction between day laborers, or jornaleros, and police, neighbors and businesses. It will also curb exploitation of the workers by employers, who will be registered with the center.

Jornaleros will be organized on lists to avoid the swarming that goes on in parking lots. Those who work hard will be able to develop a reputation and work more regularly. The organizing committee will work with police to enforce loitering and trespassing ordinances around the center.

Hector sees it as an organization where the workers create the systems that will govern their labor. He and the panel talk about establishing a minimum wage, and about refusing to accept donations of food or clothing that tend to attract homeless people. Those who come, he says, must come to work. "Everyone will follow these rules because we'll make them ourselves," Hector tells the audience.

Fendler is snorting and puffing like an angry bull. He erupts from his seat near the back of the room and says defiantly, "These people have to play by our rules. The rules say illegals are not supposed to be in this country. Why can't we enforce the laws of this country?"

The tension is palpable as people turn in their seats to look at him. He continues, bolstered by their stares. "Look at the sniper in the D.C. area, he was illegal. The police should be protecting us citizens from the people who don't belong here."

"Let's not make this about immigration," pleads a member of the panel. A debate on immigration could degenerate into accusations of racism, and that's a word no one -- not even Fendler -- wants mentioned.

Fendler holds up his hand in protest. "Look, you can't just set aside the laws that don't work for you." These people are here, he continues, because of measures taken in California to fortify the border with fences, a step that has funneled an increasing number of immigrants through the deserts of Arizona. "China built a wall, and it worked for them. Let's build a wall. I'd like to see a wall along the entire border, and along the Canadian border as well."

It's exploitation, he reasons -- borrowing an argument from the other side -- exploitation of the system by illegals, and exploitation of illegals by those who hire them. "Whatever happened to social security, payroll taxes and workmen's comp?" he asks.

"Think about it," he sputters, looking long at Hector. "If you get hurt, who's going to pay your hospital bills?"

"I'm not afraid of things," Hector says later. "Here on the street you see everything, and you must learn from it or you'll never survive this jungle." He's confident that the racists and the patriots will have little to complain about once the center is up and running.

But much to Hector's frustration, although not to his surprise, lately he has to watch his own crowd as closely as its detractors.

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