In the Age of Immigrant Panic

Jornaleros line the corners along East Oakland’s High Street. Additional groups of mostly young men wait along San Leandro Street and International Boulevard. An occasional car or pick up truck stops, all run to the vehicle and a few get in to clean a yard, paint a house or carry furniture. For three consecutive days, I counted more than 300 Central American and Mexican men in an approximately one square mile area. Hundreds more hang out at other intersections from San Francisco to San Jose, as they do in scores of other cities throughout the United States.

Typically, a group of Mexicans or Central Americans will share a boarding house room in a run down area – up to eight of them. Desperate elders often from rural or small town families have dispatched the young potential money earners al norte to send enough back home so that families will not have to abandon their home and village.

More than 120,000 of these day workers – most without legal status – hang on street corners and in front of empty lots. They also will do construction work, landscaping, gardening and any other work tasks they can understand and carry out. Thousands of area residents have hired them to do crap jobs for low wages.

A recent 18-month study conducted by UCLA, University of Illinois and New School researchers discerned that their jobs often involve heavy lifting or “yard work” with hazardous materials. Of the thousands interviewed by the researchers, 20% claimed they had received job-related injuries, but most didn’t dare seek medical help because they feared hospital authorities would inform the “migra” and they would be deported. Almost half the workers in the study claimed they had bosses who stiffed them or paid less than the agreed wage.

Most jornaleros don’t shoot drugs. Those who do can drop in at a community clinic in East Oakland where health workers lance and clean their abscesses and dispense antibiotics along with clean needles. The staff also tests clients for sexually transmitted diseases and refers seriously sick people to the hospital. It’s one of the rare places that treats jornaleros.

In the summer of 2005, a Guatemalan man in his late 30s that had lived for 3 years in the United States and worked as a jornalero walked into an East Oakland hospital. He said in Spanish since he barely spoke English that he felt very ill, ached everywhere and had a terrible cough and acute pain in his chest. A staff member interviewed him and discovered that he lived in a small room with a “hot bed system” – sharing the bed with another man who worked a different shift.

He said he had sex occasionally – about once a month was all he could afford — and always with prostitutes. Often the woman came to his room and then proceeded to other rooms in the same boarding house, some of them occupied by as many as eight men. She serviced all of them. He described her as an addict – “crack ho,” he called her in heavily accented English.

Like some – but not all by any means – of the jornaleros he had never attended school. When the interviewer asked him in fluent Spanish if he had ever been tested for HIV, he looked at her as if she came from another planet. He shook his head in bafflement when she tried to explain what HIV and AIDS meant.

“I am talking about a sexually transmitted disease,” she said. He stared at her, uncomprehending. “A disease that can be passed from one person to another by having sex?”

He shrugged. Nope. Illness that can be passed from one person to another? No idea. “He had never conceived of the idea that an illness of such nature existed and could be transmitted from one person to another through the sex act,” she said. A large percentage of those that came to the hospital and got tested showed some form of an STD – more than 15% with HIV positive. “No wonder,” said the staff interviewer. “They sleep with the same hookers who go from room to room. We discovered that some and perhaps most of them are addicts and share needles. The make Typhoid Mary look tame.”

Abel Valenzuela, a UCLA professor, discovered that some 86% of the jornaleros are between 18 and 47. Most jornaleros look for work west of the Rockies; the majority in California. I drove by at 6 a.m. and saw them on the street corners, shivering in the morning cold and fog. Valenzuela found that “most go home jobless.” (Valenzuela et. al. “On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States” Day Labor Survey, 1999)

In late July, I played a friendly pick up baske ball game with three Mexican men, two who were buddies from rural Guanajuato, the third from Chiapas. All of us had fun. We were all careful not to play so competitively that we might get injured. They worked at a thriving sushi restaurant owned by Koreans who treat them abusively, steal their share of tips and threaten them with deportation should they complain about conditions at work. All three young men heard about specific job opportunities from their village friends who had previously migrated. None speak English after spending almost a year in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“One of our friends translates for us when the Korean boss says something.” They make $10 an hour, work ten hour shifts [half hour for lunch], six days a week, live four to a room and send about 70% of their income to their families in Mexico.

“We’re much better off than the jornaleros,” said Jose.“We know we work six days a week. Even though the Korean sushi chefs make about $25 an hour and get a share of the tips, we still do alright and get some food every day as well. And we learned a skill, how to be a sushi chef and cook hamachi kama [broiled neck of the yellow tail] and other exotic sushi rolls we never heard of before we came here.”

Jose spoke of a jornalero from Guatemala who lived in the boarding house with him and his roommates. He came in 1995 and now has a job working steadily for two weeks every month doing gardening for an apartment complex. “He’s a very educated man,” he said, “who knows about the architecture of Oakland.” Jose also knows jornaleros addicted to booze and drugs, “but I stay away from them. I want to go home after I save money and marry my girl friend in the village.” The others laughed. “If she’s still waiting for you,” they heckled.

“Don’t you want to become citizens?”

They shrugged. “Too much trouble,” said Alfonzo.

“Just join the army,” I suggested.

“No way,” replied Jesus. “I’d probably die or lose a leg from a roadside bomb in Iraq before I made it to citizenship.”

They laughed. “Or your cojones,” one joked. They know they can’t make a living in rural Mexico, a place NAFTA has made uncompetitive. Small corn farmers can’t compete with Cargill and other agri-businesses heavily subsidized by the US government.

My father came to the United States in 1920, a refugee from civil war in the newly born Soviet Union. Other family members came earlier to find work Those Americans currently feeling panic over immigrants stealing their jobs, using their medical and educational institutions and contributing to crime and environmental degradation might try getting to know one or two of them. They might discover something — about their own panic – and the prejudices that ensue from it. It might also revive their interest in the history of their own families who might well have received treatment similar to what the current “illegals” must face.

SAUL LANDAU is the author of A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD. His new film, WE DON’T PLAY GOF HERE is available in dvd form through


SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.