An hour before dawn, Tony Mendez squats in a dank Tijuana culvert, waiting for his chance to slip past a U.S. Border Patrol sentry.
Snared by immigration agents in an Ontario doughnut shop, Mendez has no doubt that he eventually will return to his job washing catering trucks. At the moment, he is more concerned about making it back in time for his 15-year-old cousin's gala coming-out party.
More than a hundred miles from the line that she also crossed illegally, Pacoima vendor Alicia Martin loads homemade tamales into a shopping cart, preparing for another morning of street peddling sure to irritate a grocer who complains that her sales steal from his business.
Later that morning, at a Terminal Island detention facility, John Chen tells a judge he should be granted asylum because he ran afoul of Chinese population control authorities when his vasectomy failed.
That afternoon, Kevin McNamara walks through a migrant camp he is trying to have razed, shaking his head in disbelief that such squalor can exist so close to his affluent northern San Diego home.
These disparate episodes are linked by a single thread--the vast illegal migration to Southern California that has sent tremors across the social and political landscape.
On a single day--Nov. 19--from the early hours until almost midnight, from Ventura County to the Mexican border, more than 30 Times reporters and photographers sought to chronicle the ways these newcomers are shaping the region.
They found impoverished Mexican laborers losing hope in the San Fernando Valley and they found the daughter of a former Romanian cabinet minister living comfortably in Orange County.
They found young men hawking phony green cards in neighborhoods so crime-ridden that police drive by without blinking. They found undocumented children who believe they are entitled to a free education--if only because many of their relatives have been paying taxes for years.
They found an Irish house painter so fearful of deportation he rarely drives, and when he does, never exceeds 55 m.p.h. They found an immigration agent bantering affably with those waiting to cross illegally. And they found an attorney, on his 6,841st deportation case, joking about how the names of his clients have changed over time.
The snapshot is of a Friday--a workday, six days before Thanksgiving, a slow time at the border because there are few crops to be picked in the north during the holiday months.
Some of the stories that emerged are familiar, others surprising. Taken together, they serve as reminders that illegal immigration is inextricably woven into the fabric of Southern California--a dynamic, confounding, undeniable fact of daily life.
5 A.M.: So Many Wonderful Things
The clock-radio lurches on in the darkness, filling Tomas Gonzalez's one-room shack with the strains of a Mexican ballad.
This has been his wake-up call since 1990, when he left his wife and two boys in the state of Michoacan for the fertile terrain of Ventura County. He had hoped to send for them six months later, his wallet made thick by wages many times higher than what he earned in Mexico.
"I had a vision," says the 28-year-old stoop laborer, "a dream of what this country would be."
But that was three years ago. He pulls on a grimy pair of trousers, mixes a cup of instant coffee and fires up a cigarette. For $200 a month, he has the concrete floor hut to himself. The paint is peeling, the broken windows are covered with plywood and he shares a nearby toilet with half a dozen other farm workers.
He is out of the hovel before sunrise, bracing against the cold as he shuffles a few blocks to a parking lot filling with his competitors--migrant workers, many of them illegal, whose muscle forms the backbone of California's multibillion-dollar agriculture industry.
The season for Oxnard's big cash crop--strawberries--is still a few months off, so there is little work these days, mostly celery and weeding. To win a trip to the fields, Gonzalez joins one of the knots of men gathered along the road, hoping that the employers who slowly cruise past in pickups will see something in him.
Gonzalez is one of an estimated 980,000 Latin Americans illegally in the state, a number that represents about 75% of all undocumented immigrants here. If he is asked for papers, he will pull out a phony green card that set him back $65. On this morning, no one asks because there is no work. By sunrise, not a single pickup has stopped.
Later that afternoon, other farm workers will return triumphantly to the barrio, forming long lines at check-cashing stores and packing the neighborhood cantinas. But Gonzalez, who has worked only once this week, lies on his bed, studying the most recent letter from his wife.
"We hope to join you soon," he says, reading aloud. "We've heard so many wonderful things about America."
The postmark is already a year old.
6:30 A.M.: Like a Paradise