The Hunted

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Chapters are no longer limited to border states, and tension has been reported in many cities as Minuteman volunteers stake out informal labor centers and spark the ire of workers and immigrant rights groups. Kirby began pushing last spring for his chapter to join the surveillance efforts at day labor centers, where, according to a national study released in January by the University of California at Los Angeles, 75 percent of the workers are in the country illegally, 59 percent are from Mexico and 38 percent are from Central America.

Greg Thompson, training coordinator for the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, spent the summer holding training workshops for new chapters. In August, Thompson told NPR that he'd been photographing people inside hospital emergency rooms, which are required to treat the undocumented even if they're uninsured.

"I go in there and take pictures of them," he told the reporter. "It makes them nervous."

Critics say such surveillance amounts to harassment.

"It's a modern version of the 'KKK Lite' without sheets," says Domingo Garcia, national civil rights chairman of the League of United Latin American Citizens and a former state representative. Watching immigrants through binoculars and deterring hiring "is clearly intended to have a chilling effect and could have a devastating impact on these day laborers who depend on this income to support their families," he adds. "The enforcement of immigration laws and the issues regarding immigration are federal issues—they would be better served by contacting their representatives in Congress and President Bush and urging them to pass comprehensive immigration reform."

Advocates of reform, including Bush, say it should involve not only border enforcement but also systemic changes to streamline paper-processing backlogs and provide a legal way for low-skilled foreign workers to immigrate and gain citizenship.

"What we need to do is create an immigration system that will fill the gaps of the jobs Americans are leaving," says Ben Johnson, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Policy Center. "American workers are going after jobs with more education and training, but building houses, cleaning and caring for children still need to be done, so the role of a functional system is to provide legal ways for workers to come here. All the picture-taking and all the border-watching isn't going to change a broken immigration system."

A large number of experts agree that immigrants fill a labor vacuum that's broadening as baby boomers retire and Americans become more highly educated. Immigrants fill one-fourth of construction jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and a high number of those workers are in the country illegally.

"There's a lot of construction work in the area, and there's a limited workforce," says James Schwinkendorf, executive director of the North Texas Contractors Association. "The average age of a construction worker is approaching 50. In some segments of the industry it's pretty tight right now—the number of individuals pursuing those trades, there's simply not enough of them."

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said in October that immigration would have to rise to 3.5 million people annually to overcome the effects of an aging population, and while the close-the-border camp rightly points out that immigrant labor hurts low-skilled, American-born workers, the 500-plus economists who sent a letter to President Bush in June calling immigration a net gain for the economy said the depression of wages is relatively small. A pair of Harvard economists found that dropouts suffered most from immigration and had seen their wages fall by 8.2 percent, but many experts also point out that the share of American adults without a high school diploma has plunged from more than 50 percent in the 1960s to just 15 percent today.

By mid-October, Jose Jimenez had seen his income fall by half, from around $1,600 per month to just $800. The Minuteman volunteers had come twice more, once parking at a different lot on Garland Road and holding signs and banners. The Monday after their last visit, the contractor who was supposed to pick Jimenez up didn't come, and he didn't answer his cell phone. The other contractors he'd worked for in the past weren't returning his calls, either, and the number of trucks coming to the labor center had slowed to a trickle.

On October 10, his wife had been admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with placenta previa, a condition in which the placenta implants in the lower uterus near the birth canal, often causing hemorrhaging. He visited her every evening while their 3-year-old stayed with relatives. The electricity in their apartment had been shut off because he couldn't afford to pay the $300 he owed for the past two months.

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Megan Feldman
Contact: Megan Feldman