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.
"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.
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."
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.
When choosing whom to hire, "I go by appearance," Brian says, "and by their ability to speak decent English. If they look shabby, smell, or are overly aggressive, I pass them by."
Hector's English was poor then, Brian says, but he proved himself to be a hard worker. Eventually, Hector moved into a trailer behind the office; it just seemed easier than taking him to and from work every night, and they liked having him around. "Hector's a hard worker, and he doesn't goof off. He's a very organized person and a great leader."
When Hector's family came to join him last year, the living situation changed, but not the closeness. "We've had his family over for dinner; he'll invite me in for breakfast when I come pick him up. You can see it's more than just a working relationship. I don't know what we'd do without him." What he would not do is hire a legal employee and pay taxes and benefits. He'd go back to Bell Road and find another Mexican.
Sheila recalls a summer trip to a trade show in L.A. On returning, they loaded the remaining equipment in a box van. "We were so worried about the checkpoints, so we had Hector pack it to leave a little room in the back." When the truck was loaded, Hector crawled over the appliances and slipped down inside. Brian closed the door. "It was hot that day, and I didn't intend to go more than a few miles." As bad luck would have it, a police car pulled in behind them, and they couldn't pull over to let Hector out for miles.
"When we finally could stop, I felt just terrible. Poor Hector climbed out of there just dripping with sweat."
There are times, Brian says, when Hector works well past quitting time. "There have been days when I can't pay him, and he'll ask to come work for free because he wants something to do.
"I can't hire someone with papers because there's no way I can afford the benefits and make a profit. We are a small business, and it's a constant struggle to stay alive."
As employers, Bruce and Sheila are enthusiastic about the new center. "I'd like to see a controlled entrance to keep out the dopers and undesirables," says Sheila.
"It's Russian roulette right now for the employers, too," says Brian. "You never know who you're going to get."
It's close to 7 now, and Hector carefully bags the appliances he has left to assemble to protect them from dust. "Work tomorrow?" he asks. "No," Brian says, "not tomorrow, not on Thanksgiving."
It's 5:30 on Thanksgiving morning. The air is crisp, the sky pitch black, the streets empty as two men walk quickly up 25th Street toward Bell Road.
There is some satisfaction when they reach the corner, survey the emptiness and find themselves the first to arrive. One of the men pulls his windbreaker snugly around him and drags on a cigarette for warmth. "El que madruga Dios le ayuda," he says -- "God helps the early ones" -- as his companion shuffles back and forth in silence.
A few more men arrive shortly, greet each other, and stand together as they will until the middle of the afternoon. But football and turkey are what's important to their would-be employers, and there would be no work.
They talk quietly as they watch the deserted streets. For a while they trade fantasies of the homes they left behind. Ranchos nestled among rolling hills covered with flowers and wild oregano. Villages where any traveler worthy of the journey -- because not just anyone can make it through the mountains -- would be welcomed like a king, fed with homemade tortillas and thick steaks, then sung to sleep by children. No one talks about why they chose standing on a street corner hooking for jobs over paradise.
Just past 6, Hector arrives smiling widely from under a thick fleece cap. "Sorry I'm late," he says, as he shakes each outstretched hand. "I had a hard time saying goodbye to my blanket this morning."
Hector knows most of their names, but all of them know his -- and his reputation. He is an emerging leader of the jornaleros. Thin and lanky with a face eroded by smile lines, he's been standing on this corner most mornings since he came here from Sinaloa six years ago. Whether this center fails or triumphs depends much on his influence on the disparate group before him. It's a heavy load, but it suits him.
Hector was an accountant once, then became a bureaucrat for the government supervising an office of tax assessors in Culiacán. When politics changed in Mexico and Cedillo replaced Salinas de Gortari, Hector says he was one of many who lost his job, something as common and inevitable back home as the change of seasons. There was no work for someone on the wrong side of politics, so he kissed his wife and young children goodbye and came here to start over.
"This turkey thing," a man says with a sigh. "It's bad for us. There's going to be nothing today."
"Every day is Thanksgiving for us," Hector retorts. His sentimentality is shared by many jornaleros this time of year. Many return home for the holidays. Hector won't brave the desert again. "Thank God that we have health and life, and that we can stand here talking together. Without that, where would we be?"
Where they aren't is scrambling for jobs in Mexico that pay one-tenth of what they can make here in a day. Most send the money home to keep their children clothed, fed and in school.
The dawn sky glows like the inside of an Easter egg when Fidel, in his mid-40s and dressed in black jeans and a baseball cap, struts up and elbows his way into the conversation. Fidel is one of the newcomers Hector isn't sure about.
Fidel will boast that he has papers, a car and speaks perfect English. He says he's been working in this country for 32 years and knows güeros. Fidel first appeared three months ago, and Hector has never seen him work. Not once. "I think he's here for a different reason," he says. He's here to disrupt efforts to organize workers at the center, Hector suspects.
Fidel quickly finds his audience. "These people who came here from England, the ones who are celebrating today?" he preaches to the circle of men, "they were more fucked than we are, but they did something about it. They went out and killed Indians and made everybody speak their language. That's why those people are eating turkey today, and we're out here in the cold. They stood up for themselves. We have to stand up for ourselves."
He urges the men to demand their rights, since Mexicans have been building the American Southwest since Kennedy was president.
Fidel wants to lead, but his reasoning is seen as flawed, his thought process explosive and illogical, and his calls to action go unanswered. Unlike Hector, Fidel hasn't earned anybody's trust or respect. Yet still they listen. These days, with big changes looming, issues of where these men will fit in once the center is opened are on everyone's mind.
"There will always be troublemakers in every group," says Salvador Reza. "Hector is very good at neutralizing trouble, and making decisions based on the group's consensus."
Back when Hector first appeared on the scene, Reza says, the streets were a much different place. "It was the law of the jungle out there. The strongest worked, the weak or timid went hungry." It's true that it's still that way to some extent, but the men hope the center will bring order and foster unity.
Of the core group of jornaleros that originally approached Tonatierra wanting to organize the laborers, Hector is the only one who remains with the project. "He came to us and asked if we could help," recalls Reza. "I said, Are you sure you know what you are signing on for? This is going to take years of struggle, and we need people who will stay for the long term.' He said he understood, and Hector has proven himself."
And so, when Fidel pauses for air, Hector takes the opportunity to gently herd the two dozen jornaleros away from the corner and down the block to a chain-link fence that surrounds the center site. Here, they can wait without disrupting traffic or businesses on Bell Road. It's an accord they've negotiated with the police to avoid getting ticketed, and a sign of their respect.
A man with a graying mullet they call Canitas rides up on a bicycle and peers through the mesh at the lampposts and portable toilets that have been installed. "¿Oyes, como va a correr el agua aqui?" he asks Hector, wanting to know how things will work at the center.
"This is a beginning," Hector says, as the crowd moves in to listen. "This place is for us. The city is paying the rent for the land and putting up the lights and tarps and bathrooms, but this is going to be our place."
Fidel scoffs and waves a hand dismissing Hector's vision. "What kind of office is this?" he says. "This looks more like a place to have a carne asada. Where are the desks and computers? Where are the coffee makers and little televisions?"
Every step has to be earned, Hector tells Fidel. "First we have to earn back the respect of the businesses that don't want us here, and the police. And we will, I know we will. If we screw this up, let them throw us all in jail."
There is a buzz of energy now as Hector points out where the sinks will be, where they will wait for work, where the cars will pull up, and where they will plug in the coffee maker.
A lively discussion erupts about what minimum wage should be for easy jobs versus "pico y palo," or hard labor. Canitas wonders what the pecking order will be for employment. "Let the first ones to arrive be the first ones to get work, not because they are somebody's brother-in-law or cousin or something," he says.
Hector urges everyone to bring their ideas to a meeting on December 14. "We'll work all this out then, but you have to come to the meeting and participate. Apathy is one of our biggest problems."
But there are other problems. There are those who resist change, and even sabotage it, flouting their disregard for laws and decency in public. There are the fringe characters like Roberto who lies in a parking lot drinking 40-ouncers and listening to a Walkman, ignoring the debate in the street. He's the guy Fendler sees when he looks at the laborers -- another drunken, lazy Mexican.
When the workers move behind the fence, Hector says, Roberto won't be welcome because he will scare away potential employers.
There is a difference between day laborers and street people, Hector stresses. Those who are there at 6 a.m. to work have a mission. "It won't be good for [street people] if we succeed, so they tend to provoke situations."
A tall man in an emerald turtleneck, dark slacks and shined loafers walks up the street with surprising grace, dragging elegantly on a GPC as the group parts to let him in. "Kino, que tal?" they greet him, as they touch fists. He's known as the poet of the Jornaleros Macehualli for his "pensamientos," eloquent, issue-oriented poems he will recite from memory on special occasions.
"Kino is a good man," says Hector. "An excellent man. This center is his dream. He's been there from the beginning. I wish he'd stay and help organize, but he refuses." Hector shakes his head. "He says he's here to make it better for us. Once it opens, he says his work will be done and he's going back to Mexico."
Kino attracts a lot of attention. His brown curls frosted with gray are neatly swept back in a pompadour. His eyes are large, all pupils that swirl with slate, copper and jade.
Kino talks slowly with the other workers, as he surveys the hazy sky. They have to strain to catch his words, and whenever he opens his mouth, a shush ripples through the buzz of chatter. Kino keeps one ear on the conversation as he glances over at Roberto, who has moved from 40-ouncers in the parking lot to sipping stolen tequila across the street.
"Those of us who are older and have been here the longest have to set an example, " Hector says. "Those of us who are here to work know we have to keep this area clean." A young man nods in agreement adding, "one or two guys can ruin this for all of us because that is what the güeros expect to see."
"Hector," Kino says, breaking the trance as he stamps out his cigarette. "Why don't you tell [the workers] about the crabs?"
"Ah, sí, los cangrejos," Hector says with a smile.
The story is this: A man walking on a beach comes across another guy selling crabs. He has two full buckets. One is uncovered and filled with Mexican crabs, the other contains crabs from another country, and is tightly covered with a cloth. "Why is one bucket covered?" the first man asks. "So they won't climb out," the crab seller responds. "I don't have to do that with the Mexican crabs. Every time one of them gets close to the top, the other crabs pull him back down with them."
They look at their feet and laugh, their shadows grow long on the asphalt in front of them. It's nearly noon.
A disheveled woman with bright blue eyes and a full goatee walks into their midst trolling for a cigarette before pinballing back across the parking lot.
A pickup truck pulls up. "Here's the turkey," says Hector with a wry smile. A woman climbs out, and some of the men scuttle toward her. Hector and the crowd around him don't even blink. But it's not turkey she's handing out. It's Ziploc bags of water bottles and condoms. "It's charity; she's trying to help," says Hector, "but we don't want help, we want work."
While they watch the condom lady, Kino slips away and walks to a nearby Dumpster. He kneels beside it and wraps something in a clean, white towel. He walks slowly back toward them, a gray pigeon cradled in his hands.
"She's dying," he says, stroking the bird's breast. Canitas struts over and asks to hold the shaking pigeon. Kino hands it over and lights another cigarette.
Canitas examines the bird's clenched claws. "She's got cramps in her legs," he says as he straightens them.
It must be the poison, the men agree. "When I first started coming here, the building behind us was full of baby birds," Hector tells them. "They decided they didn't want pigeons anymore and put poison seeds out."
Canitas sets the bird on the ground, and watches as it struggles to remain upright, wings trembling, scared and flightless.
Eyeing a police cruiser nearby, Kino says, "I don't think they want us here, either."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.