Work Wanted: America's Unknown Labor - Sowing the seeds of a political movement

Part IV They build our homes, landscape our yards and harvest the produce we find in our grocery stores. Migrant labor fuels our economy, in Seattle and across the country, yet these 13 million workers - the majority traveling from Latin America - remain largely a statistic.

Working in the United States as an immigrant laborer, documented or not, is a dangerous proposition.

According to a spring 2005 report on immigrant workers' rights compiled by the National Immigration Law Center, low-wage immigrant workers are among the most vulnerable to exploitation on the job, especially concerning wage, hour, health, and safety issues.

This observation is backed by a January 2005 Human Rights Watch report that found "federal laws and policies on immigrant workers are a mass of contradictions and incentives to violate their rights."

In Seattle, CASA Latina is the primary place where these workers gather to gain good, temporary employment. The nonprofit organization's Belltown worksite is also the spot where immigrant workers learn how to deal with the legal contradictions and incentives to maximize the rights allotted them by the local, state and federal governments.

"Our center is kind of a cross between a union and a social service agency," stated CASA Latina's executive director Hillary Stern. "Through organizing and education we can empower the workers to solve their own problems. Rather than making their decisions, we provide support so they can solve their own problems."

Daniel Anguiano, 43, a migrant day laborer raised in Zacatecas, Mexico, currently serves as CASA Latina's worksite coordinator. He has toiled in the Pacific Northwest's agricultural and urban centers since the late 1970s. In 1988 the government naturalized him.

Almost every day Anguiano is in close contact with the migrant workers flowing through Seattle, most of whom he says hail from Mexico.

The origin of these workers may seem unsurprising, and their presence here takes on a grim tone when considering that a 2004 OSHA report revealed that the death toll for Mexican-born workers averages one a day in the United States.

Taking this to a deeper level, a 2004 Associated Press investigation found that Mexicans represent one in 24 workers in the United States, but they account for one in 14 of America's workplace deaths.

Bleak facts such as these serve as rallying points for the migrant workers and their supporters. From the dominant Latinos to the Eastern Europeans, Africans and Asians, immigrant laborers are discovering they have legal rights in America.

Order from chaos

For decades, the sidewalks under the Alaskan Way Viaduct's northern terminus have served as an informal gathering place for day laborers seeking work. But without a system of accountability among the workers, the area took on a run-down, ragged and sometimes criminal atmosphere.

This began to change in the summer of 1999, when the CASA Latina worksite set up shop on the Western Avenue block.

Hearing about the positive changes to the area's day labor culture, Javier Alonso Salas Buenrostro's father sent him to find work at CASA Latina soon after he'd graduated from Middle College High School in 2003.

Buenrostro, 21, is energetic and well-spoken. He came to the United States in July 1984 from Mexico,where he lived with his grandmother and aunt in a town called Apatzingan in the state of Michoacan.

The cultural transition wasn't always a smooth one for the young Buenrostro, who said he grew up among Seattle's African-American residents with only "a little Latino" population to identify with.

"There were times we had trouble," Buenrostro said of his life in the Central Area.

When he found himself in the more familiar cultural surroundings offered by CASA Latina, Buenrostro embraced its pros and cons. "It's a place where I can get a job and make a living," Buenrostro explained, adding that one positive aspect of the organization is that "the money goes to the workers."

He said CASA is a good place for people first entering the country, in that everything is geared toward helping folks get on their feet.

But a larger concern for Buenrostro is what he perceives as the organization's need for greater unity and cohesion among those who use CASA Latina's services.

Buenrostro feels there's a rift among newcomers and those patrons who have witnessed some of the organization's alleged earlier problems. According to Buenrostro, the biggest obstacle to change at CASA is a kind of fatalism that may be a holdover from the past. What's needed, he said, "is a paradigm shift."

"People who have been here longer have a different mindset," he said, adding that too few patrons attend the meetings held by CASA Latina staff. "We need to be organized. We would have power."

Although Buenrostro agrees that everyone involved with CASA Latina has "the mind to work," he feels that not enough people are engaged with or committed to CASA's evolution as a political and social force.

"There's only a few that are willing to get with the program," Buenrostro asserted.

He added that as long as they're divided, and until the minds of the workers change, CASA's effort is not going anywhere. "We really are like a big team, but we're not pulling together."

An inevitable change

Such sentiments reveal the seeds of a burgeoning political movement. They also epitomize the crossroads at which CASA Latina apparently finds itself - as an organization evolving from social service to social entity, from a warehouse of labor to a genuine labor movement.

CASA's local efforts are already coalescing in such national terms. According to Stern, her organization is a founding member of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

However, even with such a pool of experience backing them up, CASA has taken some recent administrative missteps with their impending location move. The structural damage wrought by the 1999 Nisqually earthquake has forced the city to replace the decrepit Alaskan Way Viaduct. As a result, CASA must find a new home for its worksite.

"The workers and the board of CASA Latina have determined that near Home Depot in the SODO neighborhood would be an ideal relocation site, but we need both political and economic assistance to be able to move there," Stern states in an April 2004 letter.

But instead of finding a place in SODO, the CASA staff announced, in February 2005, that they wanted to purchase the rundown Chubby & Tubby building and property along Rainier Avenue South, close to downtown Columbia City.

The move deeply upset many Southeast Seattle residents, who accused the organization of poorly communicating the nature of the center, their plans for relocation and the fiscal and logistical wisdom motivating the CASA relocation's sudden change of geography.

As a result, the Chubby & Tubby plan was ultimately scrapped, and now CASA is back where it started, hoping to find a place in SODO with help from the neighborhoods and city hall, according to both Stern and Anguiano.

For workers on the street like Buenrostro, the Chubby & Tubby controversy didn't resonate as deeply. According to Buenrostro, the creation of a significant identity for his fellow day laborers is more dependent on those who tap into the services CASA Latina provides than the location of their facility.

Ultimately it's an issue of accountability: CASA Latina provides the networking structures common to most bureaucracies, with their loops of feedback that can ensure, for lack of a better term, "satisfaction with the product."

Because of this, Buenrostro asserted that for people using CASA's labor pool, the expense is often cheaper than hiring from the disorganized group of free agents plying their wares just down the street. Such information, Buenrostro said, needs to get out to the general public, which knows only what it sees and hears.

"Employers need to speak out on behalf of the workers to help out CASA: spread the word," Buenrostro said. "If they speak out, they could testify on our behalf."

The four-part 'Work Wanted: America's Unknown Labor' series is on-line at

Erik Hansen edits the Beacon Hill news & South District Journal. Rick Levin edits the Magnolia News. They may be reached at

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