The American Dream, Not Just for Americans: The Life of Day Laborers

Yolian Cerquera


 “I have been here five years. I don’t like it here. I can’t wait to go back. I have my family in Hidalgo (Mexico), two kids and a wife,” said a jornalero anonymously while standing on a sidewalk in Queens, New York.


“This is environmental contamination,” he adds sticking his hands out of his coat pockets to point to the hundreds of indelible stains from bird droppings that have fused with chewing gum and other bits of litter.


“Back home the barrenderos sweep the streets and keep them clean. Not like this,” he scoffed before concluding that “this is a side of New York tourists don’t see.”


This jornalero’s openness was most likely a side effect of having had his first warm meal of the day at 10:00 at night, at least that’s how Jorge Muñoz explains it. He advised me to let him serve his first round of meals, before approaching any of his regulars.


So like a tourist on a safari expedition, I heeded the advice of the guide in keeping my distance for fear of disturbing them, and possibly having them run off.


Jorge Muñoz, who runs the foundation An Angel in Queens, has dedicated the last 10 years to serving hundreds of day laborers seven days a week from the back of his white pickup truck, and says he will continue to do so despite having lost his job as a school bus driver a year ago. He was honored in 2010 by Barack Obama with the Presidential Citizen’s Medal for his outstanding dedication.


“Rice, pasta and chicken,” he responded when asked what was on the menu for tonight. He stabbed the top of a foam food container with a disposable fork before handing it to the next person on line, who then moved to the tail of the pickup truck where hot chocolate was being served.


“We feed approximately 150 people daily,” said Alvaro, a volunteer and representative of MiraUSA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to social works project in 13 different states.


Indirectly, Muñoz has saved this Queens jornalero some pocket cash to scrimp and save up for the pricey bedroom he rents nearby; allowing him to save for more urging matters.


“My daughter just received her bachelor’s degree in travel and tourism,” he adds proudly, “and I plan to go back home this year.”


Other undocumented workers are not as fortunate.


The Cold Facts

There are 633,782 people experiencing homelessness every day in the United States, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH). Many of the people Muñoz feeds claim a number within that homeless group since they are jornaleros by day and homeless by night. So why risk homelessness in this country rather than back home?

“Your life depends on a random stranger who could kill you, will probably disrespect you, and will most likely pay you much less than you deserve. But even those prospects are better than the ones you used to have,” writes Gustavo Arellano, author of Ask a Mexican.


Put differently, the insecurity back home brings many illegal immigrants from Latin American countries here. Now, as Americans become conscious of the correlation between unemployment and homelessness, or what lauded economist Amartya Sen, calls “lack of opportunity” and poverty, we grow fearful. The problem is not only inadequate income, but the loss of security, as well.


The inability to put our money to work leads to the issues that families are facing now, such as failed mortgage payments, cost of college education, retirement, and the list goes on.


Naturally, the uncomfortable question arises of whether the $12 an hour that the Queens Jornalero received during one week for cleaning debris in the areas of New York devastated by hurricane Sandy could not have better benefited an unemployed New Yorker.


The same uncomfortable question could be asked of the approximately 1 million jobs in construction, sanitation, or cleaning taken by undocumented immigrants between 2008 and 2010 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Census Bureau data 2011), which could have benefited citizens in other parts of the country.


 A Day Without…

They’re in every town and city. You probably don’t pay much attention to them, but they’re involved in your life or community in one way or another. They have probably helped prepare your meal at a restaurant, washed your car, wrapped your bouquet at the local flower shop, or gutted the salmon you’re about to serve at dinner. But one morning a mysterious fog engulfs the nation and the Queens Jornalero along with the millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. vanish, leaving a million jobs open for U.S. citizens to take back!


Such an occurrence would make the film A Day Without a Mexican prophetic, especially considering that the outcome would most certainly embody the moral message of the film: immigrants—documented or not—contribute to our society. 


We don’t need to get as creative as filmmaker Sergio Arau, however, to process how impressionable such an event would be.  Flashback:  Jan Brewer— Arizona— SB 1070.


Although most of the key points of this anti-immigration law were struck down by the Supreme Court, the most important one (checking the legal status of individuals by racial profiling) was maintained. It influenced Alabama, Utah, Indiana, Georgia, and South Carolina to do the same; a mass exodus of illegal immigrants ensued.


In theory, this scenario would have provided the perfect opportunity for local citizens to regain employment, proving that illegal immigration was indeed hurting the economy; but in practice many business owners would argue that it’s counterfactual.  


“I have 158 jobs and I need to give them to somebody,” said Randy Rhodes, president of Harvest Select processing plant in Union Town, Alabama, to Bloomberg Businessweek in 2011. He argued that he turned to foreign labor only because Americans weren’t taking the jobs of skinning, gutting, and cutting up catfish.


Furthermore, the United Farm Workers Union launched a campaign in 2010 called “Take Our Jobs” inviting American citizens to apply for labor-intensive and low-wage farm jobs. According to the organization, only 4,000 applied and less than half considered the jobs. There were close to half a million openings, but few wanted a job paying less then minimum wage and no benefits or worker’s compensation.


Undocumented immigrant workers fill in the gaps left behind in the job market by native-born workers and legal immigrants who are not willing to subject themselves to subpar working conditions often found in informal jobs.


It is argued by economists that workers like the Queens jornaleros actually provide a boost to the economy. In one case, Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda , a UCLA professor and author of the analysis “The Economic Benefits of Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” argues that making undocumented immigrants citizens (and having them pay back taxes and other fees) would add $1.5 trillion dollars to our GDP, while mass deportation would produce a $2.6 trillion in lost GDP.


Considering the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 provided amnesty to millions of undocumented workers who entered the U.S. before 1982, and set up a temporary agricultural workers program, one could infer that Ronald Reagan saw the benefits an immigrant workforce had on the U.S. economy back then—and perhaps Obama sees the necessity for one now. 


Author Bio:

Yolian Ceruera is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photos:, Yolian Cerquera,, YoungThousands, Bradley Gordon (Flickr, Creative Commons).

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