Lives of day laborers in the age of ICE

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The tool shed behind the Pasadena National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON) workers center. The walls are painted by day laborers. All photos by Paulina Velasco.

If you drive by Home Depot or Ace Hardware, you might see people waiting outside for work such as painting a room, fixing a roof, or moving furniture. They're paid one day at a time for their physical labor, and have no guarantee of future work.

These day laborers feel more anxiety now, as the Trump administration has ramped up efforts targeting immigrants nationwide. However, the threat of deportation is not new to them. Before Trump, the federal government deported millions of undocumented immigrants, and Obama was dubbed "deporter-in-chief." 

Carlos Bautista, an organizer with the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON), estimates that for every 100 day laborers who used to wait outside hardware stores and strip malls, there are now about 60.

There's also a drop in the number of people who come to the Pasadena NDLON center waiting for work. 


The Pasadena NDLON center keeps the curtains closed so it's tougher for people to look inside.


Art and guitars line the walls of the Pasadena NDLON center. 

Luis (who withholds his last name for safety reasons) is an organizer at the Pasadena NDLON center and a former day laborer. In 1991, when he was 17 years old, he came to the U.S. from Mexico. His pursuit of the "American Dream" didn't work out like he imagined. He says he hasn't been able to return to Mexico because it's too risky.

Luis says what's most damaging is Trump's language about immigrants and people of color, and that it's been picked up by others around the country.

He says he's gotten more suspicious of potential employers who walk into the center to hire someone. He says when they can't answer a straightforward question, such as what they want done at their house, he thinks they might be an undercover agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Luis recalls one prospective employer who walked into the center, and after she saw the posters there, she said, "I know that you guys are anti-Trump, and I want you to know that we support him all the way because we don't like Mexicans here… You're stealing our jobs."


Signs at the Pasadena NDLON center.

One person who regularly seeks work at the center is Carlos, a single dad with a 15-year-old daughter. She lives in constant fear that he'll get deported. He says that when he leaves for work, she tells him, “Be careful. If you see something, come straight home.”

He tries to calm her nerves while hiding his own. But Carlos says he’s prepared, so that if he does get deported, his daughter has someone safe to stay with.

Despite the fear, anxiety, and sometimes paranoia, people keep showing up to find work at the center. They need the money and maybe haven't found another way to get it. “Feeding our families is bigger than fear,” Luis says.


Art of ICE members carrying away the Statue of Liberty.