They're called "coyotes" or migrant traffickers who sneak thousands of Hispanics across the 2,000-mile-long U.S. border each year. The alien smugglers are often ruthless and elusive, recognized for being chingones, Spanish slang for "hard core." They're a Hispanic immigrant's hero and a U.S. border agent's nightmare.
Where previously a majority of migrants crossed alone, today 90% rely on coyotes or polleros. The service, which can cost $2,000 to $4,000 a piece, carries no guarantees. Over 1.5 million Mexicans are deported from the U.S. every year, yet for many, it's worth the risk. Immigrants stand to earn four to five times more in the U.S. than in their native country, where jobs are scarce.
Although few have skilled training or can speak English, many will do the strenuous physical work that others shun. They are known as jornaleros, or day laborers, and they can be found on urban street corners throughout the Southwest.
An employer will drive up, offering a flat-sum fee, paid in cash with no questions asked. Performing backbreaking work at a moment's notice, the cheap labor is a vital resource for many contractors.
Until recently, there was hope of an amnesty for the estimated 6 million to 11 million illegal residents in the U.S. Potentially, it would mean the best of both worlds, a labor force for employers and steady work for struggling immigrants, many of whom are supporting families back home.
Last year, Mexican President Vicente Fox visited President Bush in early September, and an amnesty decision was believed to be imminent. But when the terrorist attacks struck, security concerns overrode all other considerations.
Almost a year later, amnesty seems unlikely as the administration revamps the Immigration and Naturalization Service, transferring some of its border-control functions to the Homeland Security Dept. In May, INS' Border Patrol released its first most-wanted list of eight migrant smugglers, including men with drug cartel ties and nicknames such as the "Goat Herder" and "Rambo." The list reflects the profound problem that coyotes pose to an agency that has had difficulty plugging its porous borders.
In July, INS announced it would pursue fines, jail or deportation against immigrants and foreign visitors who failed to notify the government within 10 days of a change of address. Also, the agency has said it will require that tens of thousands of foreign visitors be fingerprinted and photographed.
AGENCY UNDER FIRE
However, INS has had difficulty keeping tabs on the 350 million people entering and leaving the U.S. every year, let alone chasing the 300,000 visitors who overstay their visas. The agency has been riddled with challenges and setbacks since Sept. 11, the most recent of which was INS Chief James Ziglar's announced departure after just 13 months on the job. Critics slammed Ziglar for failing to repair relations between lawmakers and the agency, once it took on a higher national profile.
An unprecedented exodus of border patrol agents and immigration inspectors has also plagued INS this year. Lured by better pay and more satisfying jobs, about 2,000 border patrol officers and immigration inspectors have left the agency since Oct. 1, 2001.
The border patrol has hired 1,499 agents this fiscal year, but it lost 1,459 veterans, for a net gain of 40. That's just a fraction of the 744 additional agents it's racing to hire before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. Currently, there are 15,000 border patrol officers and immigration inspectors, about 1,500 fewer than INS is authorized to employ.
LITTLE CHANGE SINCE 9/11
"In general, the border patrol hasn't been able to have a significant impact on alien immigration," says Steven Camarota, research director of the Center for Immigration Studies, Washington D.C. "Since Sept. 11, there hasn't been a real noticeable change in immigration. Any reductions that have been made are pretty modest."
That's a relief to union and nonunion contractors alike who rely upon an immigrant work force for a variety of tasks, including demolition, asbestos abatement, roofing, interior wall finishing, painting, masonry and general labor.
"We would be lost without them," says John C. Pape, secretary-treasurer of Phoenix-based Arok Inc., a $25-million-a-year commercial drywall contractor. Hispanic immigrants make up 80% of the company's 200-person labor force. The company, like others, has seen a downturn in construction activity since last year's attacks. As a result, labor has been readily available.
The increase in low-skilled day-labor comes as a result of a 30-year wave of immigration from Mexico and Central America, says Abel Valenzuela, associate director of the University of California, Los Angeles' Center for the Study of Urban Poverty. It reflects a changing economy and a job market more reliant upon flexible, temporary help.
According to a two-year UCLA study that surveyed 481 jornaleros at 87 sites in Orange and Los Angeles counties, the day laborer population is at 20,000 and growing, consisting mostly of Mexican males ages 18 to 37.
"The Hispanics are a huge component of the construction labor force," says Jeffrey C. Stone, president of Summit Builders, Phoenix. "It would be significant if the government clamped down."
Summit routinely monitors its jobs, checking social security cards and work visas to guard against illegal aliens.
"From time to time, we discover two guys with the same social security number on a project," says Stone. "But there is not a great tracking system to verify the legitimacy of an active number or inactive number."
For Sundt Cos. Inc., compliance with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 is critical to securing federal and state government contracts. The Tucson, Ariz.-based contractor has been part of an Employment Verification Pilot (EVP) program for three years, says Wayne Oliver, the company's affirmative action compliance officer. Sundt sends alien numbers and other information to an INS database via modem, and the agency verifies the alien's right-to-work within a few hours. Over 50% of Sundt's 1,100-member work force is Hispanic.
Before 1993, the AFL-CIO had tough anti-immigration policies in place. But that has changed in recent years. The fast-growing immigrant population has become a key part of the unions' recruitment strategy to increase membership.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor & Statistics predicts that the Hispanic share of the total labor force will jump from 10 to 13% by 2008. Within the next three years, Latinos are expected to become the nation's largest ethnic group and the primary language of more than 17 million people in the U.S.
TRADES FIND RECRUITS
In booming southern Nevada, where more than one in five residents is Hispanic, the carpenters union's southwest regional council has doubled in size within three years. The council, which covers Nevada, Southern California and Arizona, has grown through its Hispanic recruitment, which makes up roughly 30% of the union's 50,000 membership.
"We think we've opened ourselves up and removed any barriers for membership," says James Sala, the union's organizing director.
The union has a four-year apprenticeship program in place that offers English as a second language and Spanish courses. Last January, the union helped finance a Worker Rights Center in Las Vegas, providing information, training and assistance for low-income workers.
The Associated General Contractors and Associated Builders and Contractors both want to create more effective guest worker programs to replace the underutilized H2-B visas issued by the State Dept. Only about 1,500 construction-related workers entered the U.S. on H2-B visas last year.
But for the time being, as INS undergoes a dramatic overhaul, that idea is being placed on the back burner while contractors and coyotes continue to conduct business as usual.