At the end of Bay Parkway Avenue, by the waters of the Lower New York Bay, there is a large parking lot. To its right is Bensonhurst Park; to its left, a large shopping center with several department stores. The Verrazano-Narrows bridge that connects Brooklyn with Staten Island can be seen in the distance.
At seven in the morning, with the outside temperature dropping below 40 degrees, about a dozen senior Chinese people practice Tai Chi in the park. A few meters away, in contrast with their slow and fluid movements, over a hundred tightly grouped pigeons scramble against one another, trying to claim some of the tiny bread crumbles spread over the ground.
On the sidewalk of the parking lot here in Bensonhurst is a shipping container. Colorfully decorated, mainly in red, it provides a jovial contrast to the monotonously white background offered a Kohl’s and a Toys R Us, which appear like two giants flanking their glaring little brother.
The container serves as the headquarters of the Workers Justice Project, a labor agency in which day workers—usually undocumented immigrants—have come to find work for over a decade. And just as the weather has changed outside the container, it has changed inside as well, since November 8.
The project began in 2002, with a small group of workers who began gathering by the Bay to discuss their rights. At the time, many of them spent full nights at crowded intersections along 18th Avenue—and many still do–waiting for contractors to arrive in trucks with day-job offers, and jumping into the trucks to claim a spot.
That system teems with dilemmas: Desperate to get the job, many times workers don’t negotiate its terms, and are the subjects of abuse. They work for just a few dollars per hour. There have been cases where they don’t know where they were taken to and at the end of the day are left stranded without having been paid. And there are the safety issues, both in the job and during the battle to obtain it. Jesús, 65, came from Guatemala in 2003. Nicknamed “Don Chucito,” he has with the center ever since it was created and is familiar with the situation. “They hurry to cross the street to get a spot in the truck and get hit by incoming cars. Many workmates have died in those intersections,” he said. The situation is also problematic for some employers, who have no way to know if the men they are trying to hire have the skills required to perform the job, or whether they can even be trusted.
The workers that began meeting at the bay eventually abandoned the street corners and set up a white tent by the water. The goal was to get the employers to come to them, instead of them waiting for the employers at the corners, by vouching for the skills of those who got hired through their new organization. They eventually built a small wooden shack, used mostly for storage, and the tent was replaced with a small trailer. These frugal facilities were literally blown away by Sandy in 2012. After the storm, the group managed to obtain a few grants, which allowed them to buy the present shipping container.
Ligia Guallpa is an executive director at the project. “If you try to get a job in the corners, you are lucky if you get 10 dollars an hour. But doing it through the project, salaries go between 15 and 18 dollars,” she says. Contractors come looking for people to work in various areas, such as painting, carpentry, welding, construction, and even demolition. Since June of last year, the center started a formal membership system and it now issues ID cards. Guallpa says the have more than 200 members. “We require workers to be certified by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”
Over the years, the Workers Justice Project has become more than a hiring agency. It is a symbol of strength and a source of camaraderie for the immigrant workers and members say the Project is appreciated too by the community where it is located. “The community has supported us ever since we arrived here,” says Guallpa. “They know what we are doing and they know it is important. Community boards have made sure we are considered whenever there have been construction plans in the area.” The red container is referred to by many names among its members: el centro, la oficina, la casita. Freddy, a 40-year-old from Ecuador who is a legal resident in the United States, calls it something else. “It’s my home.”
For a decade and a half, the project has fought for the labor rights and conditions of immigrant workers. Since November 8, however, faced with the unexpected new reality of the election results, its members are questioning the future of their mission. “We are a labor rights center; our fight has always been about labor, not immigration directly,” says Guallpa. “But with Trump now elected, everything changes.”
In a meeting after the election, the project staff discussed the new reality and agreed about the need for action. The first challenge they have come across is one that is not frequently mentioned in the public discourse about immigration. Namely, when it comes to the perception of the policies that the future president—who built his campaign largely on an anti-immigration rhetoric–might implement, immigrants are not the homogenous group they are usually portrayed as. “After the election, we realized many immigrants don’t think they will be affected, that they believe nothing will really happen,” Guallpa says. “It not only those who are here legally, but even some undocumented immigrants seem to think that way. Many are convinced only those with criminal records will be deported.” The situation she describes is reflected in the group gathered this morning at the project.
One member—Freddy—said he does not fear that he could be expelled from the country. “I don’t break the law and I pay taxes. If I don’t do anything wrong, I am not afraid.” He believes Trump’s policies should make the country safer. “You can’t just throw out 11 million people. But there are a lot of bad people who are let in the country, so he’ll have to be selective and efficient in finding and deporting those who have a criminal record.”
Shpetim, nicknamed Tim, is a coworker in the project. A 48-year-old Albanian who spent 20 years as a worker in Italy—where by his own account he has led protests marching around the coliseum—he is the only non-Hispanic person in the room. Tim arrived a few years ago to the United States with his wife and two boys. He doesn’t speak much English and communicates with his Hispanic coworkers in Italian, which they appear to understand as naturally as if they were hearing Spanish. Tim also plays down the possibility of immigrants being deported en masse. “When Trump creates more jobs, are Americans going to go to work at construction sites? No!”
Manuel, 52, is from Perú. He has been in the United State—legally— for two decades. He has children and grandchildren in this country and, like Freddy and Tim but unlike another worker at the Project this day, Aurelio, he remains unconcerned. “I want to work another couple of years and then go back to Perú to retire. If they want to kick me out, let them go ahead. They would be paying my ticket back.”
Others have a different perception of the situation. Aurelio, a 28-year-old Mexican with a jovial face that gives the impression of being younger, is concerned about his undocumented status. “I came here when I was 14. I have lived half of my life in this country. My life is here now. I don’t want them to send me back to Mexico.” Don Chucito, a short Guatemalan with a quiet demeanor, agrees. “If they decide to go after undocumented immigrants, they won’t have time to check who has records or not. We won’t even have time to tie our shoes if they come for us. The center has become more than an employment organization. It’s a refuge.”
In their meeting after the election, the center’s organizers agreed the new reality demands they begin to act beyond the scope of immigrant labor rights for which they have fought since the beginning of the century. “We can’t ignore this. We need to create awareness that the danger is real, that we really are in great risk,” Guallpas says. “As immigrants, we should not be afraid, but we need be prepared for the worse.
“We expect attacks against organizations like ours. Not only because those we try to help are immigrants, but because they are organized workers. We don’t know who the new Secretary of Labor will be, but we expect him to be against unions, workers, and immigrants.” (The day after this interview, the president-elect named Andrew Puzder to head the Department of Labor. Puzder is a vocal critic of government regulation and opposes a $15 minimum wage, broader overtime pay, and the Affordable Care Act.)
How exactly will they face the new situation and what they will do concretely is still under discussion, but the Project has decided to start with an education campaign. “We plan to organize workshops where those who have concerns about their status can come to discuss them in public. We want to use those workshops and other events to produce videos and distribute them through social media. Their stories should be heard by those who play down the situation.”
Regardless of their different perceptions, those in the room discuss them in a calm manner. Nobody tries to undercut whoever is speaking or have the last word. A sense of camaraderie seems to prevail, despite their different opinions and different immigration statuses.
Don Chucito is among those who are concerned. He said he has been concerned since even before the election. “Since the campaign, treatment has changed.” However, he is not afraid. “I hope he keeps his word. I hope Trump tries to kick us out. People don’t act on symptoms; only when sickness attacks. If he tries it, people would wake up and start gaining strength. Let’s see what he would do when millions of workers go on strike. Let’s see if Americans can endure more than eight hours every day in the fields, picking vegetables and fruit. We build this country and he will be forced to face that fact if he tries to kick us out, so I hope he keeps his word.”