By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 13, 1998; Page A01
Some 200 laborers herded behind a chain-link fence, all immigrants, listen intently. This day, the bosses driving the trucks are hiring roofing crews to spread boiling tar under a merciless sun. They need house painters, drywall hangers, cement spreaders, bricklayers and ditch diggers. They want men to ream clogged septic tanks, to haul away asbestos, to crawl under houses and kill rats.
These newcomers in the day-laborer pen, from Mexico and El Salvador and Guatemala, represent a tide of humanity that is having a profound effect on the economy of the United States. Immigrants today do some of the dirtiest, most difficult and dangerous work in America, the work that native-born Americans of any ethnicity or race often will no longer do, or no longer do for the wages offered.
"How much?" asks the foreman, Abdonel Cespedes, who supervises the day-labor yard for an immigrant organization.
"Five bucks," say the bosses. Cespedes will tell them $6.50 is the going rate for an hour's honest labor. Many of the men buying workers will repeat themselves, as if Cespedes did not understand their English. Five bucks. Then they wait to see what happens.
The immigrants understand the law of supply and demand, and they do the math. Is it better to jump into the truck now, for less money, but a guarantee of five $10 bills at the end of the day? Or wait, for a better offer, one that may not come?
In gateway cities such as Houston, immigrants provide a source of cheap labor that has changed the way many Americans live not only those who benefit from the work that immigrants provide but also those who compete against them. Just as microwave ovens or cellular phones have changed daily life, so now does immigrant labor provide service and ease, maids and cooks, cleaners and care-givers, painters and babysitters for American businesses and often directly to the middle classes.
As the country experiences one of the most massive immigrations in modern history, much of the public debate has focused on whether the arrival of 1 million newcomers a year, legal and illegal, is a good or a bad thing whether the cost of educating immigrant children or feeding their poor is worth the benefit that comes from allowing them in. Whether, in the most simplistic terms, immigrants are a net gain or net drain, not only to the economy but to American culture and lifestyle.
But just looking at the bottom line is not enough. A day in the life of Houston, or New York, or the District of Columbia would not be the same without immigrants, who toil not only on the bottom rungs of the economy, but also on the top.
This is about the jobs they do, about four immigrants in particular, and the rippling effects of their work as a day laborer, a high-rise window washer, a manicurist and a physician.
The success of these and most immigrants in the United States is harnessed to many factors. Their legal status, their education and how much money they had in their pockets when they arrived plays an unmistakable role in the choices they make and the lives they lead.
But taken together, the stories of these four immigrants, from Guatemala, Mexico, Vietnam and India, reveal much about the role of immigrants in the modern American economy. They show how newcomers have taken over whole sectors of the labor force; how they compete with native-born Americans; how they have created new services and wealth; and how they are recasting the American dream, not only for themselves, but for everyone else as well.
The early morning sky is beginning to glow with heat when a van comes into the day-labor yard. The boss behind the wheel is an elderly man, with deep ebony skin and a long snowy white beard, his eyeglasses held together with tape and rubber bands. He is looking for three movers. Cespedes asks the laborers, in Spanish, who wants to work for the man he dubs "Santa Claus."
Manuel Barrera steps forward from behind the fence. Moving is hard, heavy lifting, but there may be shade, even air conditioning. The man with the beard offers him too little. Barrera holds out. He wants $7 an hour but settles for $6.50. Two other men agree to go too.
Later, Barrera confesses, "I was ashamed to fight for pennies."
Now 48, Barrera crossed the Rio Grande while in his twenties on his long journey from Guatemala City to Houston for one single purpose: to work for U.S. dollars. He says that he has neither been welcomed with open arms nor been turned away. He, too, is ambivalent about Americans. His life, he believes, is better in Houston, but also very hard. He hopes his children will do better.
Immigrants like Barrera have taken over entire sectors of the labor market, creating new wealth and offering services that were unavailable or too costly. They have made money for themselves and for the middlemen. But they have also competed, with a ferocity fired by a will to survive, with the native-born Americans who lack the skills required for advancement in the new post-industrial economy.
The job market this current wave of immigrants enter is vastly different from the one that absorbed the last great wave of immigrants earlier this century. Today, the factories are gone, and the economy resembles an hourglass. At the top, the elevator class works in tall buildings shuffling papers and typing on keypads. At the bottom, immigrants paint the walls and clean the carpets. There are fewer and fewer jobs requiring medium-level skills for average pay. It is as if someone has cut the rungs from the middle of the ladder.
Because many immigrants have only modest educations, their ability to move from the lower rungs of the ladder to the higher has grown more difficult. At the top of the economy, the opportunity for advancement is great and salaries are climbing; at the bottom, wages are stagnant or falling. For the lowest-paid workers, a recent Rand Corp. study shows, inflation-adjusted wages are about one-third lower than they were in the 1970s. To be an immigrant day laborer in Houston is to throw the dice every day. Breaking even is enough. At dozens of street corners around the city, men jump into moving pickup trucks, heading for work. Some are stranded at the job site at day's end, with no car to get them home. Some are cheated of their wages.
On this day in the life of immigrants hard at work, Manuel Barrera goes with Santa Claus, first to rent a very large moving van, and that is when Barrera begins to think this day will not be easy. He drives the van with a bad clutch to a storage company, where the entire contents of a now-shuttered store have been impounded as part of a repossession. The job is to unload everything from one van parked at the storage facility, transport the contents across town and unload at another storage site.
Barrera opens the first truck, which is filled to the ceiling with a jumble of garage-sale junk, refrigerators and art from Africa carved masks and ceremonial spears and huge pieces of mahogany furniture, the heaviest furniture ever made.
Barrera sighs. There will be no air conditioning today. The metal-sided vans are ovens, and as the day wears on, the heat becomes something a man physically recoils from and the loads to lift so heavy that Barrera and his co-workers almost fear them, as if the weight could break a man.
There is no lunch break. No toilets. That is assumed. After a few hours, the men grow dizzy, weave on their feet and demand something to drink. It is so hot that not only is Barrera's shirt soaked with sweat, but so are his bluejeans, lathered in a white froth, like a horse.
Barrera is a man with a happy face but, he says, he has a heavy heart. He believes he should not be here, surrounded by younger men, offering his body for day labor. He has worked here as a baker, a shoemaker. He is a married man and a father of three who owns a simple home and a little white truck. After years of living in the shadows as an illegal alien, his papers are now in order.
"This is work, and I will do it because it puts food on the table," Barrera says. "But I did not foresee that it would turn out like this."
This is how it is in America. This is the kind of work that many of the record-breaking number of new immigrants do. This is the fine print of the deal between the newcomers and the native-born that is overlooked in the thick reports of numbers compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and in the research of think tanks examining the immigrants' impact.
After eight hours of work, Santa Claus pays the men, including the "bonus" he has been promising all day. The two younger workers get $50. Barrera is given $60 because he knew how to drive the van, a skill worth a bit more. "You all sure got me out of a jam," Santa Claus says. "You all are hard workers, hard."
Moving his possessions, including the art and furniture he says is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, cost Santa Claus $217.88, rental van included. A professional moving company in Houston bid the same job for $980.
After his hours in the sun, loading and unloading the vans, Manuel Barrera is about to head home to his wife and children. His last words to a reporter who has spent the day with him: "If you hear about a better job, will you call me?"
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