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Day labor centers see some new faces: immigrant women

The hiring halls are drawing more female workers searching for jobs as housecleaners or caretakers.

June 11, 2007|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Maura Martinez spent months searching for work at clothing factories, fast-food restaurants and even a mini-market. But every employer demanded immigration papers.

So Martinez headed to the Hollywood Community Job Center to try her luck as a day laborer.

"If the men can find work here, I can too," said Martinez, 47, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who goes to the center several days a week. "With papers, without papers, men or women, we all come to look for work."

Immigrant women are increasingly joining the throngs of men at day labor centers across the country. But rather than compete with men, who are seeking temporary construction or gardening work, the women are searching for jobs as housecleaners or caretakers.

"What you are seeing in Los Angeles is a reflection of a larger national trend," said Abel Valenzuela, an associate professor at UCLA who has done extensive research on day laborers. "It's a relatively new movement.... Worker centers are expanding and opening up their doors to other types of workers, including women."

Hiring halls provide a safe place for women to search for work, he said. Their organizers often write down the names, addresses, phone numbers and license plate numbers of employers.

As crossing the Mexican border has become increasingly dangerous and expensive, immigration advocates say, more women have joined their spouses in the United States and decided to stay. And with the high cost of living and a volatile urban job market, Valenzuela said, families are realizing that they cannot survive on just one income.

Roughly 35% of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. are adult women, according to a 2006 analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center, and about 17% of the cleaning industry is made up of undocumented immigrants.

Martinez said she considered trying to find work through a housecleaning agency, but that often requires paying an application fee or a portion of her earnings.

"Do I work for an agency or do I work for me?" she asked. "How am I going to send money to my country if I have to pay the agency?"

Besides, at the day labor center, Martinez said, no one asks for a green card.

Highly publicized workplace raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement have prompted more employers to ask for identification and to make sure it is valid, observers said. Those checks could increase if the Senate revives and passes reform legislation that would require all employers to electronically verify the eligibility of new hires. A bipartisan immigration reform bill stalled in the Senate last week.

Nationwide, there are more than 60 job centers, usually run by community groups and offering shelter and bathrooms to immigrant and other workers. Los Angeles County has 12 day labor centers, as well as dozens of street corners that attract temporary workers.

The centers are particularly controversial because they attract large numbers of undocumented workers and are typically funded or sanctioned by cities trying to balance the needs of businesses, workers and residents.

Joseph Turner, who has staged protests at day labor sites, said the purpose of centers is to violate federal immigration laws that forbid hiring undocumented workers.

"There is only one reason to be there: if you are an illegal alien and you want to work under the table," said Turner, Western regional representative for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

"When you have women resorting to soliciting work in the least desirable environment, it's indicative that the problem is getting even worse and worse, that you are having a mass influx of illegal aliens looking for jobs that aren't there."

Sherly Harsi knew about day laborers from her husband, a contractor who regularly hires workers for construction jobs. A few months ago, she received a flier from the Hollywood job center advertising female day laborers.

Harsi called and asked for someone reliable and trustworthy to clean her West Hollywood home. She agreed to pay at least $10 an hour. Martinez showed up.

Harsi said she was a little nervous having a stranger in the house, so she stayed home during the first cleaning.

"I had to make sure everything went OK," Harsi said. "It's kind of hard to trust someone."

Now Harsi doesn't have any qualms about leaving Martinez alone in the house.

Leticia Escobedo, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant, goes to the Hollywood Community Job Center several days a week while her husband waits for painting jobs at another day labor corner. They send money back to Guatemala to support their 15-year-old daughter.

Escobedo, who worked at a clothing factory for several years, said she started going to the center after hurting her knee a few weeks ago. At the factory, she was paid by the piece, earning about $60 for 14 hours of work.

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