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.

He's always been wary of the hangers-on who crash the jornaleros' party; the grifters and homeless, the drug addicts and alcoholics they share the streets with. It's just that now, with the center opening next month, what was once a nuisance could become a threat.

There's so much more at stake. What happens on Bell Road in January could affect an estimated 2,000 day laborers in the Valley. "We are all under a magnifying glass right now," Hector says. "This is a pilot program. We have to make sure things run smoothly."

Getting undocumented workers off the street is one goal of the new center.
Emily Piraino
Getting undocumented workers off the street is one goal of the new center.

Lately, there have been many days when Hector and Fendler follow similar routines. Both roll out of bed at roughly the same time, and both often head to where the day laborers are.

But while Hector parks himself on the sidewalk waiting for a job, Fendler parks his alt-fuel SUV near a pocket of day laborers and waits for employers to come so he can report them to the INS, the IRS, Social Security, whomever will listen.

He and scattered others like him, most notably the anti-immigration group Concerned Citizens Network, are considering a lawsuit to prevent the center and the city from "aiding and abetting illegal aliens," Fendler says. "They can't use my tax dollars to break federal law," he says. "That makes me complicit."

By mid-morning, Fendler is cruising Cave Creek Road near his home in an increasingly agitated state. He pulls up in front of a group of day laborers. "Look how they jump up there," he says. "That's not the way we do things in America."

For someone so concerned with work issues, Fendler is surprisingly cryptic about his own profession. "I'm in communications," is all he will reveal. More precisely, he sells signs for a living. His Web site shows an example of his work. Oddly, it's a yard sign emblazoned: "Day Labor Now."

Fendler says he's a former legislator in Missouri, mortician and pharmaceutical salesman -- a Christian, not a racist. He says he's volunteered at a food bank. He even went to school with "people of color," and he once dated and almost married an American Indian. All he wants are for the borders to be sealed and for everyone who doesn't belong here to leave or be put in jail.

Simple as that.

"Just because they can swim the Rio Grande doesn't give them the right to be here. If they come across with paperwork, that's different. I have nothing against normal, legal immigrants, but these people sneak in here. They're criminals."

Fendler believes that the "silent majority" of Americans agree with him, if only someone or something would wake them up. "It's going to take something big to happen, like, like, big, if you know what I mean. You notice that after the World Trade Center thing you didn't hear Bush talk about open borders anymore." Fendler exaggerates a little. Bush never exactly advocated open borders, though he did pay lip service to amnesty and guest-worker programs.

The news about John Malvo, the alleged sniper accused in 12 D.C.-area shootings, and an illegal alien, "helped a little," he says. But more is needed, and on a grander scale.

It's not the workers themselves who trouble him most, Fendler insists. It's the economic costs of the problem; the money channeled to immigrants through court costs, medical care and education. He estimates the cost of illegal immigration to be "billions of dollars, and that's billions with a B."

But it's capitalism that will prevail over points of view like Fendler's, predicts Salvador Reza. "It comes down to the law of supply and demand, and economics will always rule." These people wouldn't be here, he reasons, if there wasn't a need for them.

There are those, Reza says, who refuse to accept the changing face and economy of America. They continue to cling to a castle mentality in what has become a global economy. "We have goods and services that move freely back and forth across the borders, and they want to stop the flow of human beings?"

It was Reza who gave the group its name, "Jornaleros Macehualli." Macehualli is a Nahuatl word meaning "the deserving ones," explains Reza. "In Aztec times, the Macehualli were a people who built beautiful temples and gardens. They would sacrifice part of their lives and give their sweat so that the whole community would be in harmony."

Undocumented workers built city hall, our courthouses and supermarkets, he says. "Imagine what would happen if every one of them stopped working for a day. You couldn't even get a cup of coffee."

It's after 6 on Thanksgiving eve. Hector stands in front of a small workbench assembling electronics and joking with his employers, they in English and he in Spanish. Brian and his wife Sheila own and operate a small mail-order electronics business from their home. Hector helps them out during holidays every step of the way, from assembling the product, to packaging and paperwork. They pay him in cash, $80 to $100 a day.

The couple lives about 20 miles from 25th Street and Bell Road, but it was there that they turned five years ago when they needed help during the Christmas rush.

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