Empty lots and street corners where crowds of illegal aliens have come to find work each morning for the last few years suddenly are very quiet places.
Laborers still gather at well-known pickup spots throughout Orange County, haggling over their daily wage--$35, $40, maybe $50 on a good day--before climbing into an employer's truck. But the huge crowds of men that last year upset some residents and business owners in Orange, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana have dwindled.
"The traditional labor pickup points are not what they used to be," said Mike Flynn, U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service special agent in charge of investigations for Orange County. "At 5th and Euclid in Santa Ana, it was not uncommon to see 200 people on that corner. Now, you see very few in comparison--20 or 25, maybe."
The new immigration law is largely responsible, say those who still frequent the street corners. Hundreds of illegal aliens who realized they would not qualify for amnesty under the law have packed up and gone home--even though sanctions against employers, ranging from a $250 fine to $10,000 and six months in prison per illegal alien hired, will not be enforced for several months.
And some employers still are hiring the men, although they must sometimes look harder for the workers they need.
"I've heard that they're going to round up all us Mexicans," said Guillermo Cervantes, 19, standing outside the Hamilton House Motor Lodge on North Coast Highway in Laguna Beach one morning. "Or that there won't be any more work for us. A lot of people have already left--they were scared they would get arrested."
The Hamilton House is the center of the dwindling illegal alien community in Laguna Beach. For $800 a month, in groups of six to eight, the men rent noisy, streetside rooms. An empty lot next to the motel serves as an open-air hiring hall for all types of manual laborers.
A few weeks ago, crowds of 50 or more men would gather at the lot as early as 6 a.m., waiting for the parade of employers to begin.
On this morning, there were barely a dozen--among them a few Americans who also needed work.
"I'm going to stay," said Cervantes, who doesn't qualify for amnesty because he entered the United States in February, 1983, 13 months after the cutoff date. "It's the work that interests us, not getting papers, and what is back there in Mexico for me, anyway?"
" No hable mal de su tierra! " (Don't talk bad about your country!), replied 58-year-old Pantaleon Brito Saavedra. "If they arrest you and toss you back, then what will you say? How bad it was here?"
Brito Saavedra first came to the United States in 1956, as a guest worker in Arizona. But his legal status has long since lapsed, and his numerous trips back to Mexico would disqualify him if he applied for amnesty, he said. He will stay anyway and keep working, he said, even though the employers prefer younger, healthier men.
"I want young ones--they'll work all day," said a man with a New York accent who had pulled up in a white pickup truck and rejected several men asking for work. He would not give his name, but he said that he is looking for ditch diggers for a construction site, and he would hire illegal aliens regardless of the penalties.
"What do I care where these guys are from or how long they've been here?" he said. "I've hired Americans and they walk off the job the same day."
Employers in Orange voice similar sentiments. Robert, the owner of a tree-trimming service, said that each day it takes him longer to find the two or three men he wants along Chapman Avenue, but he will reluctantly continue doing it or risk losing business.
"I'd like to hire white guys. . . . I prefer to speak English," said Robert, who pays his workers $5 an hour. "I've got an ad in the paper all the time, but maybe one out of a dozen is any good. A guy called last night, said he'd be here at 7. He didn't show. I'm real busy right now, and these guys (undocumented men) are good workers."
Robert said he is not sure what he will do once employer sanctions go into effect. "I know I won't get as much work done if I don't hire them, though," he said.
Thinning the Crowds
Orange police have had a hand in thinning the crowds of laborers who once lined Chapman Avenue near Hewes Street. While federal immigration authorities will not begin enforcing employer sanctions until October, Orange police already have begun.
Most mornings, at least one motorcycle officer patrols the area around Hewes and Chapman and issues citations to employers for any traffic and mechanical violations he can find. And if the employer is hiring illegal aliens, the officer passes his name on to the U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service--and to the Internal Revenue Service--for investigation, said Orange Police Lt. Ed Tunstall.