The treatment of America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants has been a political football in Campaign 2016, booted around hardest by Republican Donald Trump, but Pablo Alvarado seeks a more humane approach, reports Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
Pablo Alvarado is one of the leading spokespersons for humane immigration reform in the U.S., sometimes called the “Cesar Chavez of undocumented Day Laborers.” He has been to the White House many times in recent months and years, sometimes as an invited guest and sometimes as an angry and militant protester.
Alvarado is eloquent and emphatic on the need for the President and Congress to come together and put an end to the tremendous suffering being caused by the failed immigration policies of the past — backed up now by ongoing national security enforcement sweeps and mass deportations.
Alvarado is very clear about what he believes is needed: humane immigration reform that creates a fair and reasonable path to citizenship — one that does not punish the migrant workers — who have already done the hardest work for so many years, who have put beautiful fruits and vegetables on dinner tables across America for so many years, and who have helped to raise many a North American child, even as they were trying to raise their own children.
According to his bio, the Executive Director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) was “raised in a place lacking running water and electricity; and he didn’t enter school until the third grade. Working since he was five years old, he spent several years as a day laborer working in construction, gardening, and factories.”
In 2002, Alvarado joined forces with NDLON. In 2005, Time Magazine recognized Alvarado as one of the 25 Most Influential Hispanics in America. Since then, Alvarado’s stature has only grown along with his influence in the Latino community.
Dennis J. Bernstein sat down for an extended conversation with Pablo Alvarado, who was in the San Francisco Bay Area for organizing meetings with Day Laborer Center Directors from all over the region. Miguel Gavilan Molina, a radio producer who has worked closely with the Graton Day Labor Center, one of the first in the country, joined the interview.
Dennis Bernstein: I wanted to start with a little background, because not everyone knows what NDLON is, and what you do. Could you lay out the nuts and bolts for us?
Pablo Alvarado: Sure. NDLON stands for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which is an alliance of 50 community-based organizations that serve and organize the day laborer community in 28 states across the country. We connect 70 day laborer worker centers and in many organized corners where people tend to look for work across the country.
DB: And what are the nuts and bolts of the operation? What kinds of things do you do? What kinds of protections do you offer? NDLON is sort of a domestic version of the United Farmworkers.
PA: It’s very similar to the farm workers, except that this is for urban workers. So NDLON is a parallel to the UFW, in this case, except that it’s for urban immigrant workers. So the work that we do ranges from helping workers to recover unpaid wages, to helping in the prevention of deportation.
Across the country we connect 70 day labor centers. And in these centers, every day, men and women come with the idea of getting a job. And together the centers send at least 1,000 workers on job assignments on a daily basis, across the country. So we send people to job assignments.
At the same time we make sure that, if they go to a workplace, that the workplace is safe. The workers are trained on OSHA protections so that they understand what their rights are. Often times, unscrupulous employers, not all employers do this, but unscrupulous employers, hire workers and fail to pay their wages. So in terms of workers’ rights, our organization is advancing more protections for workers but also insuring that the current protections are actually enforced.
And also part of what we’ve done in the last years is push for a $15 minimum wage. Most of the workers’ centers, most of the day labor workers, are already charging $15.
DB: They’re ahead of the game.
PA: They’ve been ahead of the game for a long time.
DB: And just to emphasize how important the work is; the people you represent can be incredibly vulnerable to all kinds of attacks, very serious attacks. You alluded to it a little bit. But sometimes, it’s a battle just to get paid.
PA: Yes, in terms of workplace rights, day laborers often times are hired and not paid. At least 20% of them had some injuries at the workplace, without receiving any proper medical care. We are talking about beatings, we’re talking about lack of breaks, lack of health and safety protective equipment, when they go to the workplace.
[There is also] confusion, sometimes, as workers don’t even know who the employer is. Whether it is a contractor, a sub-contractor, the property owner. So there’s a lot of disadvantages for work for a day laborer.
DB: Could you tell us a bit about the ongoing battle you are fighting to hold the Obama administration accountable on its word to support true immigration reform and to stop the deportations? I know from your perspective, the administration has become a nightmare for deportations.
You’ve been inside the White House. You’ve been standing in front of the White House doing all kinds of actions. Set that scene. What is that struggle? How does that look? I guess it was shocking to see Obama, essentially, become the Deporter-in-Chief, out-of-control.
PA: Yes, well, essentially we’ve made incredible gains, in terms of the protection of workers’ rights. We’ve set up 70 day laborer centers across the country, and we have protected the rights of workers to stand on the sidewalk and offer their labor. We’ve won that battle, morally, ethically and legally in the courts.
But despite all this progress we have made, our members have become vulnerable when the Obama administration decided to give the power to enforce immigration law to local authorities, to the sheriff and local police. The enforcement of federal immigration law has been, historically, the exclusive authority of the federal government.
But more and more, the Obama administration experimented with what Janet Napolitano did in Arizona. So she essentially, when the President brought her in as DHS [Department of Homeland Security] Secretary, she nationalized what she was experimenting with, in Arizona. So she helped in the Arizonification of the country.
DB: I want to bring into the dialogue Miguel Gavilan Molina, who has been an active supporter of the day labor movement.
MIGUEL MOLINA: Thank you Dennis. And gracias, Pablo. Thank you for being with us here today. I can relate to this whole issue. As a youngster, I was a campesino [a peasant farmer]. But during the rainy season, when it rained, and it rained sometimes for weeks into months, I was a domestic worker. I had to go with my mother and help her clean houses. My job was the bathrooms. So I know that whole scenario.
But one of the things that I’ve always been so proud of being in conjunction with, relating to, supporting in solidarity, has been what the day labor centers are doing. [It’s] not just referrals to work for work sites and so forth, but they’re also training people, teaching people, educating the workers.
I know in some day labor centers there is leadership development. They hold English classes. Some even have citizenship classes, for workers who want to become citizens. There’s training programs that are aligned with OSHA, the occupational safety organization, to make sure the workers know the safety, know the rules and then know the proper training. So, day laborer centers are not just referral service for employment, they’re also training grounds.
And in [the centers] I’ve seen some incredible evolution of workers who in the beginning were scared. You know, would say nothing, were real quiet. Three, four, five years later now they are leaders. Now they are board members. Now they’re working on committees. Now they are spokespersons. That’s incredible to see that. That these centers have empowered people, to go beyond fear.
And in numbers there’s security, and there’s safety. That’s one thing that I’ve always been fully in support of day labor centers, because they do that.
And, Pablo, I’m sure you’ve seen that, not just on local levels, but on the national level.
PA: Across the country there’s a cadre of day labor leaders that have emerged, that went from fear to becoming subjects of change, across the country. People who have faced the issue of deportation, have overcome the process of deportation, and are now helping others fight against deportations. They are helping other workers to recover unpaid wages, orchestrating demonstrations outside establishments of employers that failed to pay the wages to the workers.
So, the only way to change society, is by making sure that people who are harmed by the unjust policies become subject. You cannot fight for citizenship in the same way, if you are already a citizen. Obviously, you know, it’s a lot better when a person who is undocumented is fighting for that right. […] The undocumented folks in this case are the best messengers.
DB: And it takes a lot of courage, because your life, your way of life, your family’s life, is always being put on the line.
I forgot to mention that Miguel has worked very hard at the Graton Day Labor Center, which is a model for the extraordinary things that can happen on these, in these sort of expanding community centers that really do become a significant part, a really important institution in the communities where they work. They do integrate into the community and play a role, don’t they?
PA: Well, the centers are not just workers’ rights institutions. They are immigrants’ rights institutions. They are entities that facilitate the integration of workers into the neighborhoods where they live, and work, with full rights and responsibilities. That’s what they learn at the job centers. You know, that they are full citizens to the fullest extent of the word.
So the job centers are places where jobs are assigned, but are also places where workers learn about their rights. And they learn how to fight back. And they don’t serve just day laborers. They also serve domestic workers, restaurant workers, anybody who is in need of assistance around wage payment violations, for example, can come to a job center, and find assistance there.
DB: I mean there’s a whole women’s rights movement that comes out of this. And in part, a significant part of what happens in these centers, [is that] women come into their own power and take control, right? And we see that, understanding their rights in a very special way.
PA: Right. The jobs center provides a safer, and more humane environment for workers to meet the employers, and engage in the transactions, that they do on a daily basis. And women feel definitely safe in those settings.
So more and more across the country we see that more women are using these services, and actually being part of the decision making process, of how these centers operate. From how the jobs are distributed, to what kind of issues the centers engage in, in terms of local politics.
MM: One of the things that I’ve noticed, Pablo, is that the day labor centers are a safety area. People know they can be safe there, they can not be looking over their shoulders, and they know that once they come there, not only will they get referred to a job, but also training. There’s different programs to train people, be it in landscaping, in gardening, in irrigation.
They are also helping people get into programs for higher education. I know that the Graton Day Labor Center worked out a thing with the Santa Rosa Junior College. And, now, for the first time, workers are going to junior college.
And some of them came from Mexico and other parts in Central and Latin America, barely getting out of grade school, and never going to high school. And then they come here and their dream is gone. And all of a sudden now they are faced with this incredible opportunity. And to see the excitement, of the people going, “I can actually get higher education!” A dream that wasn’t even there. The day labor centers have made that possible.
DB: I’ve been to a bunch of these day laborer centers now. We’ve done some broadcasts from different centers and it’s really quite a beautiful thing. I mean they’re integrating into local culture and social life. It’s important. It sounds light and sweet but the idea that the centers also have a soccer team that plays in the local competition with the fire department…
PA: I want to tell you a story. The National Day Labor Network started with a soccer game. Yes, it did. Back in 1996 a soccer team from Los Angeles came to play against the soccer team of the San Francisco Day Labor Program. And as the players met in the middle of the soccer field, they began talking with each other, in a very organic way. They began asking each other “So, when you don’t get paid what do you do?” or “When the police comes and asks you to leave, what is it that you do, to address these issues?”
And that’s how the network started. And then the organizers understood that we needed to learn with each other, and that we needed to come together, to fight back against the injustices that are affecting people.
DB: That’s so beautiful. I want to talk to you more specifically about what brings you here to Northern California. I know that you’ve been with some of the local directors of the day labor centers discussing various strategies. There are major issues that are on the line now. Several major issues that have to do with, you know, the conditions of workers. You want to lay out the multiple struggles that you are talking about, in these dialogues, with the local folks?
PA: We’re meeting today with the heads of the different worker centers here in the Bay area, to articulate a political agenda, problematic agenda, that could lift up the workers’ voices, and advance more protections for workers.
We’re preparing for the launching of an application for our members which is essentially an anti-wage theft application that workers will be able to download and get into their smart phones. So whenever they go to a workplace they will be able to document the hours, the location where they performed the work, so that if the employer fails to pay then the worker will have every single piece of information that’s needed to proceed, in terms of recovering the unpaid wages. So we’re going to do the launching of the application here in San Francisco.
And we have to train as many workers as we can, in every center, so they know how to use it. It’s a difficult task, particularly because digital literacy skills of our folks are not well developed. But we’re going to work with them to make sure that they use it. Like, over 90% of day laborers have a smartphone, it’s just a matter of sitting with them and explaining to them how it’s used. So we’re going to be talking with our members. You know, how do we do that, how do we share the resources to make sure that workers learn how to use it?
DB: And to put technology at work for this movement.
PA: Exactly. And the next application that we’ll begin working on is a health and safety application. Like whenever there is a work place and there is danger in the workplace, the workers will be able to take a picture of that danger and send it to the authorities. You know, “This is how my work place looks like.”
It’s essentially making sure that technology is accessible and useful to impoverished communities, to workers who live in the margins. So we’re going to be talking with our members about that. We’re going to be talking about the future of these job centers, and what’s coming.
I mean there’s a lot of uncertainty. We don’t know what’s going to happen with immigration. What about if Trump becomes the president? What about if Clinton becomes the president? What’s going to happen with undocumented people? Is comprehensive immigration reform dead? We’re going to engage in these discussion with the directors of the centers, and the workers, so that we can plan for the future.
DB: […] There are several bills, you know, there’s the legislative side of the battle, right? There’s a couple of things that really matter that are moving around in California legislature, right? Talk about that.
PA: Right. […] Well, we’ve, as I’ve mentioned before, we’ve been engaged in the fight for $15 in many cities across the United States. But, in California, as well. We’re very happy that the floor has been lifted. But all of this new legislation will be completely useless if there is no enforcement. And the labor code is full with thousands of codes that barely get enforced. So we gotta make sure, and this is part of the advocacy work.
You know, that even the city of Los Angeles, the city of San Francisco which is already doing it, passed an ordinance to increase the minimum wage. That they have protections for those employers that violate the minimum wage ordinance. So that’s part of what we’re going to be doing in the future. There is also another legislation in Sacramento that’s called The Truth Act, which essentially establishes a [UNCLEAR 20:09 phonetic: bribery] line between immigration law enforcement and local law enforcement.
Just to give you an example, in Los Angeles the sheriff, the former sheriff, Lee Baca, might be going to jail because of the abuses that took place while he was in power. So now, you know, the sheriff is enforcing a new program that the administration has established called the Priorities Enforcement Program which helps them identify people for deportation, and transfers people for deportation purposes.
So what we want to make sure is that […]–if those programs are going to exist–that the counties and localities have a say in how those programs are implemented. Because we’ve seen how ICE has lied throughout the years. We’ve seen how the administration has really been deporting criminals and when we found out the vast majority of people that have been deported have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and have committed minor traffic violations. So we simply don’t believe in ICE. We want to make sure that there is a bright line between local law enforcement and immigration enforcement.
DB: Alright, and finally, in terms of…there’s a big campaign going on for president. I imagine you’ve tried to be in communication or you’re watching very closely. You mentioned Trump. Let me ask you the question in this way. Do you find any candidate more friendly, offering more possibility than any other candidate? Have you had any communications with any of the candidates?
PA: We sent a letter last week to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and to Bernie Sanders’ campaign, inviting them to come and visit a day labor center here in California. We did receive a response from the Sanders campaign telling us that they are considering…so it would be fantastic if they come to a job center. So now we’re going to wait for Clinton to see if she wants to come and talk to the day laborer.
DB: No invitation to the other one?
PA: No, I don’t think that he…that we want to provide that platform for him, you know. But the thing is that when President Obama was running he spoke nicely about immigrants. He said some incredible speeches, he always says the right thing. But actions speak louder than words.
And to me, as much as Trump talks, and as much as…I mean the hateful rhetoric that he’s spilling out everywhere is indeed stigmatizing immigrants more than what they are right now. But at the same time, it’s just language. And the president is the other way around. He speaks nicely, but he has deported over 2.5 million people.
DB: Two point five million. So this has been a tragedy and a disaster that’s continuing. Right?
PA: Yes. […] There’s uncertainty in terms of what’s going to happen to undocumented migrants, whomever comes to the president, whether it’s Clinton or Sanders or Trump. There’s uncertainty in terms of what’s going to happen in terms of deportation, the deportation policies, what’s going to shift, what’s not going to shift. Because right now they’re making promises. But promises are broken often times by politicians, you know, so we don’t…I don’t necessarily believe in the Democrats, and I don’t necessarily believe in the Republicans, either.
I know that the debate in Washington, D.C. in Congress has been hijacked by a handful of nativists and xenophobes. Republican xenophobes, right-wingers, but at the same time I know that the President has been in charge of the deportations policy. It hasn’t been the Republicans.
I know that they are blocking the idea of immigration reform, the right-wingers, but I know that a handful of Democrats benefit from getting all of [these] right-wing Republicans spilling out all the hatred they spill, all the hateful language that they use against immigrants because that way they continue to use the issue of migration as a wedge issue. So there is a segment of Democrats, I have no doubts, who prefer to have the issue rather than the accomplishment, of fixing the whole immigration question.
DB: So Barack Obama has been called the Deporter-in-Chief. Some of us have called Hillary Clinton the Deposer-in-Chief because of the active role, not passive, the active role she played as Secretary of State keeping [Manuel] Zelaya, the duly elected president, from returning to Honduras.
And that decision, that active decision that she bragged about in her autobiography (of course, I now learn that it’s been taken out of the paperback edition, where she was proud to say she kept Zelaya out of the presidency…) that was […] a horrific decision that sent a flood of people north, right? Most of the people coming from Central America, [are] not from Guatemala, from El Salvador, but it’s been Honduras.
PA: Well, look there’s an incredible disregard for human rights. Any organizer in Honduras is targeted. And what we saw with Secretary Clinton doing in Honduras, I think that’s what we should expect for the policies, the foreign policies of the U.S. towards Latin America, if she comes into power.
Dennis J Bernstein is a host of Flashpoints on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net.