Most of the other laborers were also getting less work, and as they stood in the cold waiting for jobs, they talked about forming a union, a remarkable step for people whose existence here depends on silence, on eking out a living under the radar screen. It was an idea that had been kicked around for a long time and resurfaced whenever someone was stiffed by a contractor who failed to pay and then disappeared, or promised one hourly fee in the morning and paid another at the end of the day. The year before, a contractor who hired Jimenez to dig ditches in Lancaster switched the hourly pay from $8 to $7 and told him there would be no lunch or water breaks. When Jimenez balked, the man told him to fuck off and left him standing in the field. He hitchhiked back.
La Estrella had reported that the Minutemen were sending letters to contractors, and now that the workers saw the results, their talk translated into action. Jimenez and a half-dozen other laborers called Spanish media outlets, heard about the National Day Laborers Organizing Network—a coalition of day laborer unions across the country—and got in touch with Carlos Quintanilla, a Latino activist frequently quoted in the media.
Some of their peers approved of the idea, but others said it would do nothing but get them in trouble. Even if la migra didn't come for them, they said, it would just be a waste of time because no one would ever listen to them. But Jimenez was determined.
On October 19, Quintanilla arrived at the labor center to help the workers choose an interim leadership council. It was a bright morning, and between 80 and 100 workers gathered around Quintanilla and another man as the two handed out 200 work boots they'd donated. Quintanilla stood on one of the benches and asked who wanted to be interim president. Jimenez had planned to nominate a man named David, but before he could say his name he heard Quintanilla call out, "I nominate Jose Jimenez!" He looked around at the other men. They were nodding. Quintanilla beckoned him up onto the bench. "All in favor raise your hands," Quintanilla said. Hands shot up in the air, and Jimenez found himself standing above the crowd. He was the interim president of the new Garland Day Laborers Union.
In the days that followed, the group met with representatives of advocacy groups and scheduled a meeting with the mayor, and Jimenez was interviewed by several Spanish-language television stations. That's how his wife found out. He hadn't told her because he didn't want to worsen her already-fragile state—plus he knew she wouldn't approve. One night when he walked into her hospital room, she asked why he was on television. "What have you gotten yourself into?" she said. "They're going to throw you in jail, send you back to Mexico."
Asked later why he'd risk deportation to take part in a union, Jimenez grew quiet. "It was my son," he finally said (his wife delivered by cesarean on October 27). "I thought, 'My son's about to be born, and I have nothing to offer him.' Maybe we're poor, but we have dignity, and money can't buy that. I'm tired of people looking at us like the guy who cleans the bathroom, the guy who sweeps. I'm tired of being humiliated." His voice grew stronger, his eyes brighter. "The problem is the system—that they want us to work, but they don't want to give us rights. If they deport me, there will just be more Jose Jimenezes. Maybe this is just a spark, but that's how the biggest fires begin."
Kirby said he'd heard about the newly formed union. "I have no interest in what they do. They can do whatever they want. Their right to work is in their own country—we can't take everybody's poor, everybody's unemployed."
In the past year, he has made numerous trips to the Rio Grande Valley to monitor illegal border crossings. Last April he camped for nine days in his RV, though he declined to divulge the exact "operating area" for security reasons.
"I have seen the invasion with my own eyes," he said over lunch one day, his blue eyes intense. His most exciting moment on the border was the first time he spotted a group of immigrants through his night-vision scope. It was around 1 a.m., and he was standing on a dirt road near a ranch fence that cut through the scrub.