Border Angels coordinators pack dozens of lunch bags with an assortment of items for day laborers. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Every day, groups of immigrant men wait outside Home Depot stores hoping to get hired by customers looking for help on construction or landscaping projects. Workers negotiate a price with their new employers before hopping in their trucks to head out to their new job site.

Many of these day laborers live in the country without immigration status or the proper documentation to work in the U.S. That’s why for the past 30 years, Border Angels, an immigration advocacy group, has been going out to talk to workers about their experiences and remind them of their legal rights.

Now with the coronavirus pandemic and new immigration regulations set by the Trump administration, day laborers are dealing with a new slew of problems that make them even more susceptible to exploitation.

On a recent Saturday morning in Sherman Heights, a group of Border Angels volunteers and organizers filled up dozens of paper lunch bags with assorted items, including snacks, drinks, underwear, socks and face masks.

“The work has definitely slowed down, which has created a more stressful situation because these folks highly depend on these various jobs, so it’s not a secure employment,” said Dulce Garcia, the executive director of Border Angels. “And on top of that, they have to be concerned with their own safety.”

Unauthorized workers have also been denied the ability to receive funds from the federal stimulus package and unemployment benefits.

“Some of these folks don’t have access to health care, they’re afraid of accessing it. And more than anything they don’t want to take off a day to go to the doctor when they’re looking to survive and have work. If they leave their job site, they don’t get paid,” said Garcia.

Javier is one of the men who waits outside a Home Depot in San Diego. (Voice of San Diego is withholding the full names of these individuals because of their immigration status.) He said that when he can find work, he usually works 12 to 14 hours a day, sometimes with no breaks. He said there have been instances when he’s worked an entire day on a project but then employers refused to pay him.

“They treat us like we’re not worth anything,” Javier said.

Now with the pandemic, Javier said, employers will tend to only hire workers who own a car because they do not want to offer them rides and potentially spread the virus. On top of that, tensions among the workers themselves have increased now that Haitian migrants have also begun looking for work outside the Home Depot. It’s led to some racial tensions and even physical altercations. The problem, however, is bigger than just competition for work.

Back in June, the Trump administration enacted a new rule requiring asylum-seekers to wait a full year from the day they file their asylum petition before applying for a work permit. The rule had previously required only 150 days before applying. Garcia said the new changes have forced asylum-seekers to look for day laborer jobs that do not offer the same protections.

“You take away their ability to work lawfully while their cases are being delayed in court, especially with COVID-19, we’re going to see them be without a court date for over a year,” Garcia said. “So what other choices do they have except to work in the black market?

Alejandro, another one of the men outside Home Depot, said he arrived in San Diego three months ago after leaving his job in Dallas, Texas, as a metalsmith. He said his job was not paying well and business had slowed down since the pandemic started so he decided to head out West. Alejandro has been able to find work as a roofer in Chula Vista, but waits outside Home Depot in hopes of earning extra money on the weekends and to support his friends who haven’t found jobs yet.

He said the situation can be difficult at times, but he’s grateful for any opportunity that comes his way.

“Whatever work they give us, we’re not scared to do it as long as we have work,” Alejandro said. “What can we do about it? Nothing because we’re immigrants.”

County Offering Free Testing for Some Essential Workers

A few months ago, Tijuana, Mexicali and the southern portion of San Diego County were overwhelmed by coronavirus cases.

Hospital and other local officials on both sides of the border raised the alarm that the border itself was facilitating the spread. Sharp and Scripps Health sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Department of Health and Human Services in late April requesting assistance, noting an uptick in cross-border cases and expressing concerns over U.S. citizens who lived in Baja California or recently traveled there contracting the virus and seeking health care in San Diego hospitals.

There are approximately 265,000 U.S. citizens living in Baja California. And while border crossings have decreased significantly because of restrictions put in place in March, thousands of people still cross every day — many of whom are essential workers.

This unique dynamic led the county to begin offering free COVID-19 testing at the San Ysidro Port of Entry’s eastern pedestrian crossing on Aug. 12.

As of last week, the county had administered a total of 1,939 tests at the site, said county spokeswoman Sarah Sweeney. On average, the county administers 84 tests per day, with an average turnaround time for results of one to two days.

The majority of tests administered — 1,275 or 66 percent of the tests — have been given to people with California addresses. Only 10 percent of tests administered — 190 — were to people with Mexico addresses.

“Note that only nine of the positive cases found so far have Tijuana addresses as their primary residence, which would be 4.7 percent of the 190 who listed Mexican addresses,” Sweeney said in an e-mail. “That is lower than the 6.2 percent positive rate from the overall group of people tested so far.”

The number of people who’ve tested positive for COVID at Scripps Chula Vista and recently traveled to Mexico has declined from its peak in May. August, however, saw an uptick.

Sharp Health doesn’t track the travel habits of COVID-positive patients to Mexico in the same way, but generally said the number of such patients across all its hospitals in the county has declined from its high of 141 patients on May 11. The number spiked again on July 15, to 130 patients, but was down to 56 as of Friday.

Baja California had 165 active coronavirus cases as of Monday and a total of 18,542 confirmed cases since the pandemic began. It has had 3,394 coronavirus-related deaths. San Diego’s South Bay finally started seeing a decline in cases in August, the Union-Tribune reported.

More Border News

  • A new federal court filing in a class action on behalf of thousands of asylum-seekers who have been turned away at Ports of Entry since late 2016 claims that Customs and Border Protection knew it was breaking the law when it began turning them away. (KPBS)
  • Baja California penitentiary officers have asked the governor to classify deaths of their workers from COVID-19 as deaths caused by work, so their families can access their pension or life insurance. (Zeta)
  • Federal agents found 560 pounds of methamphetamine and cocaine, worth nearly $4 million, cemented inside several quartz boulders at a cargo crossing at the Tecate Port of Entry in East County. (Union-Tribune)
  • Baja California courts have restarted operations, meaning an investigation into former Gov. Francisco “Kiko” Vega and his wife, the former director of Baja California’s National System for Integral Family Development, is advancing. (El Imparcial)
  • Parents and family members in Baja California have formed collectives to help one another search for the remains of their missing children. Often parents dig for hours, but are unable to find remains. (Union-Tribune)
  • The Baja California attorney general has opened an investigation into the Tijuana’s System for Integral Family Development after finding 167 agency-run pantries with expired medications. (Zeta)

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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