To some, day laborers represent the American Dream in action; they are immigrants working hard to make a better life for themselves and their families. To others, day laborers represent individuals flouting the law, congregating in large groups, and sowing the seeds of neighborhood deterioration. The truth probably lies somewhere between these two extremes.
The politics of illegal immigration are not the concern of this article. It is a discussion of how the presence of day laborers in a community affects a community and its law enforcement officers.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that as many as 260,000 day laborers assemble every morning looking for work. Most are young, male, illegal aliens who are uneducated and do not speak English. Their lack of skills and illegal status makes them unsuitable for formal employment; therefore they must hire themselves out as manual laborers who work for cash.
Day laborers usually congregate in the early morning on street corners or in the parking lots of home improvement or convenience stores. If given the opportunity, they will meet adjacent to stores that specialize in their area of expertise. For example, painters will wait in front of paint stores whereas movers will wait near truck rental depots.
A large number of day workers and potential employers in a small area can create traffic problems. If workers are being picked up and dropped off, there is usually congestion and double parking issues. Unemployed day laborers can also cause loitering issues and problems associated with loitering such as littering, blocked public passage, public urination, public drinking, and inappropriate comments made to passing pedestrians.
Day labor sites not only represent a nuisance for the community and local businesses, they can also be dangerous for the illegal aliens who congregate at them. Laborers who are paid in cash can be robbed at the sites. They can also be struck by motorists, as oftentimes they "swarm" a contractor's vehicle without first checking if it is safe to enter the roadway.
The Wrong Approach
From a law enforcement perspective, the real problem with day laborer sites is that they can lead to the deterioration of a neighborhood. Peaceful, law-abiding citizens can be very uncomfortable with large numbers of young, poor males congregated in a small area. And if trash accumulates and sidewalks are blocked, citizens will begin to avoid the neighborhood.
In a Broken Windows crime model, when the law-abiding people begin to avoid a neighborhood, law breakers begin to move in. Though the day laborers themselves may be involved in only very petty offenses, the cumulative effect on a community can be devastating.
Traditional policing responses usually do not work well at day laborer locations.
Arresting day workers has been shown to be a relatively ineffective policy. Most of the crimes the workers are involved in are misdemeanors. And arrests for littering, public urination, and public drinking rarely yield the type of punitive sentences that will cause a change in behavior. Also, arresting a day laborer can be a frustrating, time-consuming, and fruitless endeavor for a patrol officer. Many day laborers do not have identification and most of those that do are found to be in the country illegally.