For Kesha A. Grey



© 2016 urban research publications limited

— POLITICIZING UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS ONE CORNER AT A TIME: How Day Laborers Became a Politically Contentious Group

walter nicholls

Abstract This article examines how undocumented immigrants become politicized and

evolved into a relatively powerful group in the United States. It does so by examining the evolution of day laborers from their humble beginnings in a Los Angeles suburb in the early 1990s into an important component of the national immigrant rights movement today. It addresses the issue by examining the strategic importance of the ‘urban’ in enabling stigmatized individuals like undocumented day laborers to overcome major barriers and establish themselves as a vocal and potent group in the public sphere. It suggests that once this group gained a foothold and a sense of itself through urban relational spaces, it experienced enhanced capacities to make rights claims in local and national political arenas. The article uses a case study of immigrant activism in Pasadena and Los Angeles, California, and draws special attention to the evolution of the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON).

Introduction Undocumented immigrants in the United States have emerged on the national

stage as a potent political group. In 2006, hundreds of thousands of immigrants mob­ ilized against a punitive anti­immigration bill passed by the House of Representatives (Voss and Bloemraad, 2011). These mobilizations revealed the unexpected capacities of this population. In 2010 and 2011 undocumented youths (the DREAMers1) demanded recognition as equals in the US through a series of bold civil disobedience actions (Nicholls, 2013). At the same time, activists and allies converged on Arizona to fight the state’s repressive anti­immigrant law S.B. 1070. This round of intense mobilizations bolstered the campaign to dismantle the federal government’s Secure Communities pro gram. In 2014 undocumented immigrant activists (primarily an alliance between DREAMer youths and day laborers) chained themselves to the White House, blocked deportation buses, occupied the offices of national politicians and unleashed an unre­ lenting campaign to draw attention to the Obama administration’s record on  depor­ tations, calling for an executive order to grant undocumented immigrants relief. This last campaign gained sufficient momentum to persuade the White House to enact Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and to broaden the qualifying criteria for the youth­based relief program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). While these two executive actions have become entangled in court battles, they promised to provide four to five million undocumented immigrants with relief from deportation, work permits and other basic protections.

What is impressive and puzzling is that immigrants with precarious legal sta­ tus have placed themselves at the forefront of these battles. Even more puzzling is that day labor workers––the most precarious and stigmatized of the undocumented population––and their organization (National Day Laborer Organizing Network) have assumed a central role in many of these campaigns. According to what social scientists

1 Undocumented immigrant youth activists mobilized for the passage of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act in 2010 (the so-called DREAM Act). The youths were dubbed DREAMers. Since then, undocumented youths have made important contributions to the immigrant rights movement (see Nicholls, 2013).


know about highly stigmatized people, this should not have happened. Scholars have long suggested that stigma and symbolic violence can have strong individualizing effects on targeted populations (Goffman, 1963; Elias, 1965; Bourdieu, 1994; Wacquant, 2007). Individuals facing stigma and symbolic violence often internalize the stigma attributed to them (Elias, 1965; Bourdieu, 1994). They often develop sociocultural tac­ tics that stress identification with the dominant culture and distance from the more marginalized groups in their own population (see Bourdieu, 1994; Wacquant, 2007). Accord ing to theory, day laborers should have believed in their own ‘illegality’, rightslessness and lack of legitimacy to voice grievances in the public sphere. Stigma and symbolic violence should therefore have had a strong depoliticizing effect. Even in the unlikely situation that immigrants overcame these micro­level barriers, they would still face significant legal, political and discursive obstacles that should have barred their access to the public sphere. Not only would the public not recognize their legitimacy to speak because of their so­called ‘illegality’ but many immigrant activists would face the serious risks of detention and deportation.

Considering these important obstacles to group politicization, how have undoc­ umented immigrants––and especially day laborers––become a potent political group in the United States? This article addresses the question by examining the  stra tegic importance of the urban in enabling stigmatized individuals to overcome major bar­ riers and establish themselves as a vocal political group in the public sphere. The article does not suggest that group politicization always occurs in cities among margin­ alized groups or that cities are the only places where politicizing processes can take root. Many factors (the absence of political opportunities, intense conflicts between individuals, a dearth of leadership and so on) impede the formation of politicized groups. Groups can also form in other spaces (on the internet or in rural areas). Rather, the article makes the modest assertion that certain qualities found in urban environments facilitate group­making and politicization processes.

The general argument is that cities facilitate the aggregation of large numbers of stigmatized people (Fischer, 1975) and make available a dense array of organizations where individuals can step out of the shadows and connect to people like themselves (Portes and Rumbault, 1996; Bloemraad, 2007; de Graauw et al., 2013). Through intensive interactions in these organizations, people can develop a sense of ‘groupness’ (Brubaker, 2002) and transform their stigma (‘illegality’ in this case) from a source of shame into a source of pride (Jasper, 2011). As stigmatized individuals develop a sense of groupness and pride, large and dense cities provide newly constituted groups with access to net­ works enabling them to acquire scarce resources and information (Granovetter, 1973; Nicholls, 2008; McQuarrie and Marwell, 2009). Improved access to resources and information enhances the abilities of these groups to assert their voice and power in relatively closed political fields. The density of people and organizations combines with the diversity of activist networks to make cities into unique spaces facilitating the transformation of stigmatized immigrants into robust political groups. The city becomes a strategic site for creating the levels of power needed to assert broad claims for equality. By becoming politicized in the urban trenches, outcasts like undocumented immigrants can position themselves in larger fights for rights, recognition and equality. Again, this is not a universal law that is applicable to all groups across time and space, but the processes examined here seemed to play important roles in the politicization of African American (Katznelson, 1973; 1981; McAdam, 1982; Eyerman, 2001) and gay, lesbian and transgender communities in the United States (Adam, 1987; Chauncey, 1995).

The article could have used other interesting theoretical tools to analyze day lab­ orer politicization, but I chose to focus on the urban for two reasons. First, a number of theorists have engaged in the important work of trying to understand the urban basis of


‘the political’ and ‘political subjectivization’ (Swyngedouw, 2011; Davidson and Iveson, 2014; Wilson and Swyngedouw, 2014). Such arguments are being raised (ironically) at a time when other scholars are seriously questioning the geographical specificity of the urban (‘planetary urbanization’) (Brenner and Schmid, 2014; Merrifield, 2014). Building on an argument developed in a recent article by Uitermark and Nicholls (2014), the approach taken here addresses some of the problems in the ‘political’ literature by stressing that politicization is not an immanent and spontaneous ‘event’. It is a long and complex relational process, and cities provide unique environments that enable this pro cess to unfold over time. This process nevertheless results in genuine ‘political’ moments in which actors who had ‘no place’ (Rancière, 1992), who were consigned to the private sphere––’the shadows’ (Arendt, 1958)––engage in disruptive acts to reveal fundamental inequalities within the existing order of things. While agreeing that the

‘political’ and ‘political subjectivization’ are worthwhile theoretical concepts meriting empirical investigation, the article suggests that scholars must focus their attention on the painstaking micro­ and meso­level processes that enable those caged in silence to emerge with a disruptive voice into the public sphere. The article also speaks to the

‘planetary urbanization’ hypothesis. Rather than shy away from a robust theorization of cities in broad political and economic networks, this article asserts the contrary: urban political scholars need to identify the specificity of the urban environment and understand how this kind of environment facilitates (or not) politicization processes. By valorizing the urban as a distinctive space for sociopolitical interactions, we can better understand the roles of cities in national and transnational movement networks.

The other reason to stress the urban conditions of group politicization addresses recent developments in the immigration literature. Immigration scholars have gone very far in explaining how economic, political, legal and cultural forces combine and shape the fates of immigrants in receiving societies. However, much of this literature has failed to interrogate how localities and cities played mediating roles in translating big structural forces into the concrete contexts that shape the political and economic incor­ poration of immigrants (Glick Schiller and Caglar, 2009). More recently, there has been an important attempt to address this empirical and theoretical blind­spot. A significant number of scholars have stressed the centrality of urban environments in shaping the political incorporation of immigrants (Bloemraad, 2006; Varsanyi, 2011; de Graauw et al., 2013; Steil and Vasi, 2014; Wallace et al., 2014). De Graauw et al. (2013: 85) remind us that such environments play a crucial role in the political formation of migrant groups, noting that:

immigrants in 21st-century gateways and suburbs … must establish organizational infrastructures and gain legitimacy in the eyes of elected and nonelected city officials. All things equal, this transition is likely easier in big 21st-century gateways.

The article builds on this contention by uncovering how these environments help stig­ matized people gain support, develop a sense of pride and legitimacy, and establish a voice to assert equality in the broader public sphere.

The article explores these issues through a careful analysis of the emergence of day laborers as a political group in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. It starts by ana­ lyzing its birth as a fledgling group struggling in the suburb of Pasadena. The article then proceeds to describe the regionalization of the struggle with its extension to the large gateway city of Los Angeles. Finally, it briefly analyzes the nationalization of the day laborer campaign with the creation of the National Day Labor Organizing Net­ work in the 2000s. This article is part of a larger study of the immigrant rights move­ ment in the United States. During the course of the project, the author undertook 39


semi­structured interviews; an extensive newspaper analysis of The New York Times (using the search words ‘immigration protest’ and ‘immigration reform’) for the period 2000 to 2014; and a search of historical archives of the Pasadena Day Labor Association, La Escuela de la Comunidad and the Center for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. The archives are based on grant applications and reports submitted to the Liberty Hill Foundation between 1990 and 2002. ‘The Liberty Hills Archives’ are available at the Southern California Library in Los Angeles. This article draws primarily upon interviews and archival materials addressing the day labor mobilization. Full references to the archival material have been included in the footnotes. The names of most informants have been kept anonymous, except for those who already have an important public profile. Illustrative photographs come from the personal collection of a former activist associated with La Escuela de la Comunidad in Pasadena.

How stigmatized immigrants become a politicized group through the city Scholars have begun to examine the urban and local conditions of national immi­

grant mobilizations (Cordero­Guzman et al., 2008; Varsanyi, 2008; Walker and Leitner, 2011; de Graauw et al., 2013; Steil and Vasi, 2014). These scholars suggest that the high concentration of organizational resources, political allies and receptive norms in larger urban areas seem to enable aggrieved activists to tap local resources, translate concerns into resonating claims and enhance capacities to mobilize in disruptive political acts (Cordero­Guzman et al., 2008; de Graauw et al., 2013; Steil and Vasi, 2014). This article aims to build on these contributions in two ways. First, it outlines the micro­ and meso­ level mechanisms that enable undocumented immigrants to ‘come out of the shadows’ and mobilize as a group in the public sphere. Second, it analyzes how networks between different actors enable the group to build political momentum and become effective rights claimants in city, state and national political arenas.

— The process of forming immigrants into a political group in the city Groups are by no means conceived here as internally homogenous, perfectly

bounded and consensual things (Brubaker, 2002). Group making is a complex social, cultural, emotional and political process that results in constructing common identities, boundaries, ways of thinking and modes of feeling (ibid.: 167). The emerging ‘group’ is internally divided along various power lines and its boundaries are constantly disrupted/reinforced by complex relational interactions with multiple others. In spite of the constructed and fluctuating nature of groups, ‘groupness’ nevertheless forms the basis of collective political action (Bloemraad, 2007).

The early formation of political groups involves two contradictory processes. Cities are environments where these processes unfold with the greatest frequency and intensity. The two contradictory processes identified here are the following: (1) cities are environments that facilitate the abilities of stigmatized individuals to cluster into new and increasingly proud groups; and (2) emerging groups confront others who seek to restrict their rights and abilities to survive and thrive in the city, which helps to sharpen real and symbolic boundaries and intensify the emotional outrage that fuels political struggles over time.

cities facilitate the emergence of new groups Cities are environments where large numbers of people from similar back­

grounds spatially aggregate. Larger numbers improve the likelihood that individuals with the same background connect to one another and create institutions like associa­ tions, media and socializing venues. In his classic article on subgroup formation in cities, Claude Fischer (1975: 1325–6) argued that ‘the arrival at certain critical levels of size enables a social subsystem to create and support institutions which structure, envelop, protect, and foster its subculture’. These institutions (organizations, churches, cafés


and so on) serve as concrete sites where people bearing certain stigmas (e.g. ‘ille gality’) can gather and interact with one another about their common hopes, values and problems.

Interactions in these spaces perform several important functions in the process of producing groupness. First, assembling stigmatized people in face­to­face inter­ actions  enhances levels of trust and comfort (Coleman, 1988). Building trust among stigmatized individuals reduces fears that their stigma will be used against them in a malevolent way (Tilly, 2005). This enables people to come out of their shells and dis­ cover that they are by no means alone. Second, as people develop enough trust to inter­ act and share their experiences, they draw upon different discourses, frames, narratives and symbols. They go on to assemble these fragments of culture into loose collective identities (Eyerman, 2001; Brubaker, 2002; Polletta, 2006). Polletta (2006) adds that collectively constructed stories provide the group with a moral narrative (with a beginning, middle and still undecided end) of its own becoming. Third, intensive inter­ actions and rituals in these institutional spaces can fill participants with powerful bursts of ‘emotional energy’, which reinforces solidarity, obligation and identification to the group (Collins, 2000; 2004). In sum, associations, churches, clubs, cafés and so on in the city provide safe institutional spaces for stigmatized groups. These spaces and skilled organizers within them facilitate incipient interactions, which in turn are essential for creating trust, common identities and solidarity among previously unconnected individ­ uals (e.g. undocumented day laborers). Cities are therefore conceived as environments that facilitate population concentrations and organizational densities, which in turn make it possible for stigmatized people to interact with one another in ways that foster their sense of groupness.

James Jasper (2011) argues that movements by stigmatized people often remake stigma, from a source of shame into a source of pride. Feelings of shame tend to have a powerful demobilizing effect on people, but feelings of pride can motivate them to come out and support a cause. This article suggests that the group interactions discussed in the previous paragraph can permit individuals to transform their stigma from a source of shame into a source of pride. Trust and larger numbers allow people to feel less ashamed about their stigmatized attributes (sexuality, race, pleasures, legal status). Safe institutional spaces serve as a buffer against the stigmatizing eyes and acts of broader society, allowing people who had once been fearful and ashamed to construct a sense of ‘normalcy’ in accordance with their own ways of being. Lastly, groups enable people to talk to one another and construct a collective story and identity centering on their stigma and marginalization. The narrative may describe the powers that stigmatized and marginalized the group, and then maintain that, despite the terrible injustices done to it, the group has gone on to survive, resist and thrive. The stigma can subsequently be made into a badge of honor and crystalized into politically and emotionally trenchant slogans (e.g. Black is Beautiful; Gay Pride; Undocumented and Unafraid).

everyday exclusions fuel moral shock and sharpen group boundaries The process of group making in the city is enabling and restrictive. Stigmatized

people can form into proud groups, but they also encounter multiple forms of exclu­ sion in their everyday worlds. Neighbors and friends say offensive things; prospective employers choose not to hire certain people because of status issues; teachers repro­ duce stereotypes; law enforcement officers target people on the basis of physical attrib­ utes. Other groups may also feel threatened by a growing and more prominent group in their vicinity (Olzak, 1992). Groups facing uncertainty regarding their own resources, power and legitimacy are more prone to view outsiders as a direct threat and competitor, making them more likely to embrace restrictive measures (Vermeulen, 2006). They may pressure public officials to enact institutional measures to preserve their privileges and


restrict the space, resources and political influence afforded to outside groups (Massey and Denton, 1998; Massey, 2008).

The city is the frontline space where emerging, more public and prouder outside groups face recurrent stigmatization and exclusionary acts by established groups and public institutions. The more public and prominent the outsider group becomes, the stronger the establishment backlash can be. The outsiders’ increasing sense of group pride confronts persistent humiliating and dehumanizing exclusions, giving rise to a deep ‘moral shock’ (Jasper, 1997). ‘Moral shock’ is a powerful emotion that accelerates politicization because people come to question and reject normalized exclusion. ‘Why should we be expected to live on the margins?’ ‘Why shouldn’t we have equal rights like any other human being?’

Emergent feelings and discourses of equality are circulated among the outsiders through their organizations and networks. This helps create an ‘oppositional identity’ (Portes and Zhou, 1993) whereby the group believes itself to be unjustly subordinated within the existing order of things. An oppositional identity, as used here, reflects a common recognition of the ‘bright’ boundaries separating the group from established society, a common understanding or theory for why equality is denied and a profound sense that the continued denial of equality is fundamentally wrong. The sense of equal­ ity denied becomes a lynchpin of the group’s ever sharpening self­identity. It is a not just a group with common tastes, preferences and histories. This is a group that defines itself in important ways by the denial of equality and recognition. This sense of equality denied and the subsequent formation of an oppositional identity politicize the group. The outside group seeks to disrupt the order of things and draw attention to the fun­ damental inequalities sustaining it. That being said, oppositional identity should not be confused with a revolutionary identity. Both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X possessed strong oppositional identities that strongly motivated their political engage ­ ment, but they did not necessarily agree on how best to resolve the denial of equality. Whereas the former called for the inclusion of minority groups within a reformed socio­ political order (reformist route), the latter believed that this order was fundamentally flawed and needed to be overturn (revolutionary route).

— Scale shift: scaling up and out beyond the group Some emerging groups may respond to aggressive adversaries by hunkering

down and sharpening defensive boundaries (Alba, 2005). Other groups, however, may go on the offensive and seek out broader changes in the sociopolitical order. This can only be done by scaling up and out, beyond a specific geographical locale (Miller, 2004; Tarrow and McAdam, 2005). They will need to target different geographical arenas, create support among broader publics and tap into a wider variety of resources to sustain longer, harder, riskier and more costly projects. ‘Scaling up’ political projects will likely motivate a group to reach out to potential allies, build bridges and draw on the resources of their broader environment. Scaling up is therefore an intensive  net­ working process characterized by building relations between actors in different geo­ political worlds.

Cities are strategic arenas for enabling these kinds of connections. Larger cities tend to foster higher rates of organizational density and diversity (Wellman and Leighton, 1979; Portes and Rumbault, 1996; McQuarrie and Marwell, 2009). Geographic proximity makes it easier to connect to and sustain relations with a plethora of differ­ ent organizations and groups, but proximity alone is not sufficient for such connec­ tions to be established. Larger cities also have more opportunities for networks to be formed between diverse groups and organizations (Nicholls, 2008). Individuals from emerging groups are more likely to have weak acquaintanceships with a variety of others (Granovetter, 1973). Larger cities are also more likely to have more ‘connecting


points’ (universities, community centers, churches, associations, events) and ‘brokers’. These points and people help connect groups to previously unconnected actors. The greater availability of real and potential contacts makes larger cities better suited to the geographical extension of the group beyond its original location of origin.

Groups that manage their networks effectively can draw in resources and scarce information from their environment and become important hubs in the fight for rights. Pre­existing relations to geographically distant others will allow a group to broaden networks (Tarrow and McAdam, 2005). The growing notoriety and power of the group accelerates the growth of the network as more people and organizations are drawn to it. Ideas, discourses, frames and mobilization repertoires are circulated through these long and distant networks, permitting stigmatized people on ‘street corners’ in different parts of the country to connect and imagine themselves as part of a broader political community. These networks allow people in particular places to see beyond the confines of their own narrow worlds and circumstances (in this instance the street corner). They can begin to envision themselves as a political subject (day laborers, DREAMers, the undocumented) engaged in a broad and historic struggle to bring about change.

In sum, this theoretical section outlines how the urban environment is a unique environment to facilitate group politicization, and how networking processes help con­ nect stigmatized people in particular places to one another across great distances. The most important element in making a new political group involves the possibility for stigmatized people to step out of the confines of the private sphere, connecting to others who share similar fates as themselves. These first steps make it possible for people to engage in contentious and cooperative interactions with multiple others in and across localities, allowing these groups to recognize their difference from some groups and their commonalities with others.

Bringing out stigmatized people in particular locales and connecting them across great distances are crucial steps in producing complex political groups. For Hannah Arendt (1958; see also Strong, 2012), escaping the chains of the private sphere (the shadows) and recognizing others in the broader world are essential in constituting people as fully human and political beings. This article therefore aims to trace the steps that enabled the formation of a political group: from the very small and seemingly inconsequential days of meetings in community centers to the networks that enabled these particular activists to scale up and become a national political force.

Forming a political group in Pasadena This section describes the formation of day labor workers into a politicized group

from the 1990s to the 2000s. Small groups of day laborers started to form throughout the metropolitan region of Los Angeles. The outlying suburb of Pasadena was a place where this process unfolded with a certain degree of speed and intensity. Before the mid­ 1990s, most day laborers didn’t consider themselves to be a distinctive political group. They didn’t have networks, a group identity or common mobilizing frames. There were few (if any) mobilizations demanding recognition for these people as equal human beings. Immigrants selling their labor on street corners were individuals (mostly male) drawn from different regions, social classes, occupations, races, religions and sexuali ­ ties. Before moving to the United States, most had never sold their labor on street corners and most did not see themselves as belonging to a group called ‘day laborers’ (jornaleros in Spanish) or ‘undocumented immigrants’ (Valenzuela, 2003; Chauvin, 2010). Never­ theless, their experiences of trying to find work on street corners, facing unscrupulous employers and repressive police, contending with hostile citizens and public officials, and living with their ‘illegality’ provided these different people with common difficul­ ties and grievances.


The conditions of day laborers (highly differentiated but with certain common­ alities) meant that organizations and activists were needed to encourage people to think of themselves as a group with common political goals and imaginaries. Pasadena had several organizations that provided support for its rapidly growing population of new Latino immigrants. La Escuela de la Comunidad was a small community organization2 run by volunteers during the late 1980s and 1990s. It was a project of the Los Angeles­ based Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA), providing Spanish literacy and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to new immigrants. It operated from the Villa Park Community Center, which was close to the most fre­ quented day labor sites in the city.

The volunteer educators of La Escuela used Paolo Freire’s ‘popular education’ methodology in literacy and ESL classes. The method draws on the common expe ri­ ences of ‘oppressed’ people to stimulate political consciousness. Popular education

‘incorporates the experiences and the world view of participants involved in the pro­ grams. Such a methodology assists participants in recognizing and analyzing the socio­ economic conditions which prevent them from solving their own issues’.3 During Spanish literacy classes, for example, educators developed the curriculum and dis­ cussions around words like trabajo (work). Students discussed the problems that they faced in their work places. They discussed issues like wage theft, deportation raids, discrimination and other problems. While students were learning literacy, they were also exploring common experiences as undocumented immigrant workers. Through these discussions and with the assistance of voluntary educators, they came to identify the social and institutional forces that made migrants vulnerable to repression, dis­ crimination and exploitation. Villa Park and La Escuela provided institutional spaces where newly arrived immigrants could feel safe to come out and begin talking about common experiences in this hostile and stigmatizing context. La Escuela also encour­ aged sharing and constructing a ‘consciousness’ on the basis of common legal status and class positioning.

Through these classes, the organizers of La Escuela encountered Pasadena’s large population of day laborers. They believed that addressing this issue would pro vide the organization with a strategic focus to mobilize the broader undocumented  immi­ grant community in Pasadena. In 1994 La Escuela formed the Pasadena Day Labor Asso­ ciation. Its short­term goal: ‘To establish an official, safe, clean, and healthy designated site so that the day workers of Pasadena can congregate to wait for jobs while learning and receiving English/Spanish literacy and other services’.4 While the immediate goal was to create what would eventually become the Pasadena Job Center, the longer­ term goal was to politicize and empower the community: ‘This purpose enables us, day workers, to achieve self­determination and self­sufficiency which are our long term goals’.5

The Association began to recruit day laborers from ESL and literacy classes: ‘So I went to Villa Park because English classes were being offered there. It was through those classes that I started to learn about the work of the Association’ (interview with Fernando, former activist, Pasadena Day Labor Association, June 2014). Organizers also made weekly visits to street corners and offered coffee to interested workers. One central challenge facing the organizers was the unique conditions prevailing among the day worker population. Day laborers occupied a similar position in the labor market, but had different backgrounds (regional, national, class, religion, immigration status,

2 Its operating budget in 1993 was US $3,350, with most of that covered by membership dues. Its first successful grant application (for US $8,000) was made by the Liberty Hill Foundation.

3 La Escuela de la Comunidad, grant application for Liberty Hill Foundation, 31 August 1993. 4 Pasadena Day Labor Association, grant application for Liberty Hill Foundation, 29 August 1994. 5 Ibid.


etc.). Just as importantly, constant competition for jobs and rapid turnover weakened solidarity: ‘The corners were divided by regions. So on one corner, the workers were from Sonora and other northern regions of Mexico. On another corner were the workers from Zacatecas. And another corner over there were workers from El Salvador, Honduras and so on. There were conflicts over where people were from. Now within each of these corners, there were around 100 people and they competed very hard for jobs. It was difficult’ (interview with Pedro, former activist, Pasadena Day Labor Association, June 2014).

The Association addressed the challenge of diversity and labor market com­ petition in workshops and training sessions. One popular workshop theme was a puzzle­ making competition between teams. Organizers wanted to illustrate how competition between workers undermined their abilities to solve collective problems and the importance of cooperation for doing so. They also used the exercise to identify workers with leadership skills for further training. The Association also sponsored community events, formed a band that wrote songs about the trials and tribulations of immigrant workers, and created a day labor soccer team. These efforts sought to stimulate group bonds and identity based on common class and legal positions.

La Escuela worked closely with the Association in mobilizing the broader undocumented community of Pasadena to support the effort to create the Job Center. Volunteers and many students became heavily involved in the outreach aspect of the campaign. La Escuela was able to organize a wide variety of events and forums for volunteers, students and immigrant residents of Pasadena. In one funding report, La Escuela’s director remarked: ‘We are attending retreats on Population Education Methodology every three months. We will be participating in the celebration of “Youth Month” with other organizations in the month of August. We will also celebrate our 10th anniversary on August 6 with a fiesta from 12 noon to 5 pm and a dance from 7 pm to 12 midnight. We are also planning to organize to attend the immigrant rights march on October 16’.6 La Escuela organized neighborhood clean­ups to encourage immi­ grant involvement in their neighborhoods (see Figure 1). They also created a monthly newsletter (Todos Unidos), which provided basic information concerning events and news in the community, information about the day labor campaign, and stories and images geared to create solidarity, pride and political motivation (see Figure 2).

Volunteers also organized large annual Christmas posadas that stressed the plight of undocumented immigrants. Volunteer actors retold the Christian nativity story, with Mary, Jesus and Joseph as humble immigrants in search of a safe place to stay. Walk­ ing through the neighborhood and visiting houses to ask for shelter, volunteer actors reproduced the exclusion and stigma faced by immigrants in their daily lives. Residents followed the procession until the family reached its final place of refuge in the Villa Park auditorium. There, hundreds of residents gathered for a play depicting the difficulties facing immigrants. The story stressed how racist employers, authorities and police officers repressed immigrants in search of refuge (like the family of Jesus) and, despite these everyday humiliations and exclusions, immigrants created a dignified life in extremely hostile environments.

The events and activities organized by these interconnected organizations (Day Labor Association, La Escuela de la Comunidad and Villa Park) overlapped and rein­ forced one another. They provided volunteers, organizers, students, families and day laborers with institutional spaces where they could come out, develop friendships and trust, construct common stories and narratives, and create powerful feelings of solidarity. The safety and emotional support provided by these spaces enabled indivi­ duals to ‘come out of the shadows’ and talk about the common troubles facing them.

6 La Escuela de la Comunidad, follow-up questionnaire and report for Liberty Hill Foundation, 8 July 1994.


For many new immigrants, these organizations replaced the community structure that had been lost with their move to the US. Attending ESL and literacy classes, participa ting in workshops and volunteering for many different events required intensive commit­ ment outside working hours. It created powerful bonds between the participants and reinforced their commitment to the cause. The organizers worked to construct a com­ mon identity that stressed the injustice of their exclusion. They used music, popu lar theater, events, workshops, newsletters and the educational curriculum of La Escuela to tell moral stories concerning the plight of immigrants and day laborers. While the storytelling medium varied, the narrative was consistent: immigrants were engaged in a struggle to forge dignified lives in the face of daily injustices. The intention was to transform the stigma of ‘illegality’ from a source of shame and into one of pride.

This process of group making increased the confidence of undocumented immi­ grants to mobilize in very visible public spaces including city council meetings, public forums, demonstrations, etc. They were coming out of the shadows among themselves in group meetings and events, and they were coming out in the broader political world. Their increased visibility as a new group in the city allowed them to influence local policies concerning day labor work. Pablo Alvarado, the lead organizer at the time, remarked that ‘because of our greater visibility to defend human and workers’ rights, no one in the City [of Pasadena] has proposed to restrict day laborers from soliciting work on the streets or to pass city ordinances similar to those passed at the LA County level and at other cities’ (emphasis added).7 Public visibility was a crucial step in the pro­ cess of producing a political group with the capacity to exert equal rights in the city irrespective of legal status, social class and national background.

7 Pablo Alvarado, letter to Margarita Ramirez, program officer at Liberty Hill Foundation, 1 April 1998.

figure 1 La Escuela de la Comunidad ‘Neighborhood Clean Up’


These highly stigmatized individuals were able to assume a visible and public role because of the availability of organizations and local leaders. While IDEPSCA was based in the city of Los Angeles, its satellite organizations (La Escuela and the Pasa­ dena Day Labor Association) in the outlying suburb of Pasadena provided spaces with well­trained popular education leaders. These spaces and leaders enabled immigrants to assemble, interact, create solidary ties and start building a collective identity on the basis of commonalities. Such micro­ and meso­level mechanisms (meeting in sup­ por tive  spaces, talking to one another, forging collective identities, participating in consciousness­raising events and so on) were essential in overcoming the debilitating and individualizing effects of stigma. Without these processes, it would have been much more difficult for these individuals to overcome the barriers of stigma and come out before the public eye (‘visibility’) as a rights­claiming group.

Local exclusions: group boundaries, moral shocks and oppositional identities The growing visibility of the group and its claims to resources, rights, influence

and space (i.e. the Job Center) resulted in confrontations with several more established groups. Adversaries viewed the day laborers as a threat. They were reluctant to recognize the legitimacy of the day laborers’ claims largely because of their ‘illegality’ and argued for their exclusion from their areas of the city. These long and serious engagements with local adversarial groups generated a ‘moral shock’ which helped sharpen group bound­ aries and identities.

The first effort to create a Job Center in 1994 resulted in an open discussion among day laborers; organizers from the Association, La Escuela and IDEPSCA; and a handful of sympathetic political officials. They identified several sites in the area and explored different possibilities for the Job Center. Their first challenge stemmed from the Fair Oaks Avenue Redevelopment Project Area Committee (Fair Oaks PAC). This was composed of private citizens with commercial and residential interests in the Fair Oaks area of Pasadena. Many of the members of the Fair Oaks PAC were African

figure 2 Cartoon featured in Todos Unido, newsletter of La Escuela de la Comunidad, January–March 1994. Speech bubbles read: Speaker 1 (left): ‘What’s happening with you, Why don’t you organize?’ Speaker 2 (right): ‘Hey man! I am already a member of the association. It is better to invite those who aren’t organized.’


American, reflecting the historical demographics of the area. The PAC’s role was to advise the planning agency for the district, the Northwest Commission.

The Fair Oaks PAC did not oppose a Job Center. It did, however, question whether this specific area was the most suitable place for it. Members argued that this part of Pasadena already had a disproportionate number of social service providers. They accused the whiter and richer districts in the southern part of the city of ‘dumping’ social services in the poorer northwest. Fernando, a pioneer day labor activist, remembered these misgivings: ‘I realized that there were bigger politics behind this, not just day laborers wanting a center. We walked into historical frictions between whites and African Americans, and the city’. The Fair Oaks PAC endorsed the Job Center as long as it was not in its jurisdiction: ‘They said, “We will fully support you if you look for a place south of the freeway”, which historically marked the division between the northwest [African American] and the richer, whiter area of Pasadena’ (interview with Fernando, former activist, Pasadena Day Labor Association, June 2014).

The reticence of the Fair Oaks PAC also reflected distributional politics in the area, as older African Americans felt increasingly sidelined by the growing population of Latinos. ‘There was from the Fair Oaks PAC some push back on dollars going to sup­ port undocumented people. Their beef was that, “Those dollars shouldn’t be going to them [for the Job Center]; they should be going to us”’ (interview with Janet, Pasadena municipal employee, June 2014). Uncertainties concerning up­and­coming outsiders fueled apprehension concerning the distribution of public resources and political legitimacy in the district. Day labor activists responded by reaching out to reputable organizations they believed could broker relations. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) played an important role in mediating relations between the two communities. ‘You had important parts of the African American community who believed that it can’t be a black versus brown thing; that you needed ways to come together. Mr M from the AFSC, for example, he saw the need for the two communities to work together’ (ibid.).

Day labor activists tried to humanize immigrants by telling the stories of their members. They hoped to overcome resistance by demonstrating the shared values and histories of immigrant and African American communities. This effort backfired as certain members of the Fair Oaks PAC reacted against the legitimation claims of the immigrants:

We tried an approach that didn’t work. We tried to use this, humanizing sharing of stories … Day laborers spoke about their oppression, and why they are here, and what they want for their families and why the Job Center is a good idea. But the representative from the Fair Oaks PAC was politically experienced, so he didn’t buy it. He responded by telling his own story … It was like, ‘I don’t care that you are oppressed. I don’t care that you crossed the border and have families. We have families too. My ancestors were slaves so your oppression is not bigger than mine’. So it entered all of this kind of identity politics thing. He basically said, ‘You tell me your story but you are still illegal. My family was forced to come here and my family suffered too’ (interview with Fernando, former activist, Pasadena Day Labor Association, June 2014).

It appears that the effort to build a bridge was perceived as a threat to the political legitimacy of the older community in this neighborhood. In response, the spokesperson used the ‘illegality’ of the immigrants to draw a distinction between the groups and devalue the legitimacy of one group (outsiders) while reinforcing the legitimacy of the other (older community). Day labor activists were unable to overcome the reluctance of the Fair Oaks PAC. Consequently, the Northwest Commission turned down the Association’s request for a Job Center: ‘Saundra Knox, a member of the Commission,


said the day workers’ plight is a citywide problem. “I don’t think solutions are always in the Northwest borders”’ (Pasadena Star-News, 1995).

The Association continued its search for a site. It expressed optimism about the prospects of acquiring another site beyond Northwest Commission borders. In a letter to its principal funder, the lead organizer reported: ‘The Association is still nego­ tiating a leasing contract with the owner of the property … We expect to open our hiring site on May 1995’.8 Shortly after, the Association encountered another obstacle. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 11 had its main administrative office adjacent to the proposed Job Center. The IBEW took a ‘principled’ stance against the Job Center because it represented a retrograde step for organized labor. The IBEW expressed this position in a stinging letter to the American Friends Service Committee, the organization in Pasadena supporting the day labor cause:

At present, law-abiding contractors and honest construction workers often find themselves cheated out of a living by fly-by-night operators and their unskilled, temporary workers, who are generally solicited from curbside operations such as the one proposed for the Corson Street site … Our experience has been that day laborers form a willing pool of labor for employers who intend to hire them for the lowest wage possible, often below the legal minimum … In addition, the workers are almost never employed under circumstances which provide for the payment of legally required taxes or social security deductions, and are not covered by workers compensation insurance. In short, the situation created is one in which unfair and illegal treatment of workers is the norm rather than the exception (emphasis added).9

Undocumented immigrants willingly broke the labor and immigration laws. This placed them in a state of ‘illegality’ and made them undeserving of basic rights. Having framed the problem this way, the author of the letter goes on to state that: ‘As an organization whose contractual agreements require at least the minimum protection of the law for its members, we would consider the existence of such an operation, in the very shadow of our headquarters, intolerable to say the least … We question the wisdom of the City of Pasadena in considering such an arrangement, which creates a sort of Third-World hiring bazaar’ (emphasis added).10 Law was again used to draw an impermeable line between groups that have a right to the city of Pasadena (law abid­ ers) and those that don’t (‘illegals’). The cultural attributes of the immigrants (‘Third­ World hiring bazaar’) were then used as aggravating factors to accentuate their lack of legitimacy and deservingness of a place in the city. These factors ‘made the existence of such an operation [and the people using them] … intolerable to say the least’. For the IBEW, the legal and cultural status of day laborers made it impossible to consider them eligible for a rightful place in the city.

The IBEW threatened legal action to stop the project and, in the event that failed, it pledged to fight the day labor activists by coercive means. I quote the letter at length to illustrate the fierce opposition facing immigrant workers in Pasadena:

1 We will maintain a regular presence at the site, interviewing workers to ensure that they been paid minimum wages and overtime.

2 We will ensure compliance with applicable federal and state tax laws.

8 Liberty Hill, follow-up questionnaire, 6 March 1995. 9 Letter from Southern California IBEW-NECA Labor Management Cooperation Committee to the American Friends

Service Committee, 13 April 1995. 10 Ibid.


3 We will ensure that workers who offer themselves for construction or similar maintenance work are licensed as contractors with the State of California, and will report violators to the Contractors State License Board.

4 We will inform prospective employers of their obligations under the law: a) To hire only workers legally permitted to work in the United States; b) To pay appropriate taxes, and to provide workers compensation insurance; c) To pay legal wages and overtime, and to provide a legal statement of

deductions as required by law; d) To possess an appropriate contractor’s and/or business licenses for the

work in question.11

The letter also included a flyer that the IBEW would issue to prospective employers at the proposed Job Center (see Figure 3).12

The letter concluded with an ominous threat: ‘We will pursue this activity in the same manner and with the same zeal with which we defend the rights of our members … We envision, and invite you to imagine a scenario in which prospective employers, many of them local homeowners and small business owners, could expect to be investigated through their license plate numbers and perhaps turned over to a government agency for violating the law’ (emphasis added).13 This labor union sent copies of the letter to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Department of Labor, State Labor Commissioner, Contractors State License Board, Employment Tax Fraud Unit and the Internal Revenue Service.

The Association and their allies met with IBEW officials twice to seek a compromise. The proponents of the Job Center stressed that day laborers would not compete with IBEW members and that the union should express solidarity with their fellow workers rather than fight them. The ‘Association [tried] to shame the union in dropping their threats through newspaper publicity, a demonstration, and finally a hunger strike if necessary’.14 Day labor activists also sought support from the director of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Miguel Contreras. A delegation of workers from Pasadena visited Contreras at his Los Angeles office. Though Contreras expressed concern, he did not intervene on their behalf (interviews with Pablo Alvarado, former lead organizer, and Fernando, former activist, Pasadena Day Labor Association, June 2014).

The union’s hostile response and the unwillingness of the Los Angeles County Federation to intervene generated a ‘moral shock’ among members of the Pasadena Day Labor Association: ‘This threat has thrown the Association into an unexpected level of struggle, mainly because it seems a contradiction for a union to be in opposition to our struggle’.15 The Association expected the union to respond with an expression of solidarity. Instead the IBEW stressed points that made it impossible for them to recognize their equality as workers: cultural deficiencies (‘Third­World hiring bazaar’) and the double ‘illegality’ of the day laborers (violating labor and immigration laws). The treatment by the IBEW and the lack of support from the County Federation of Labor left the leaders of the Association frustrated with organized labor: ‘That was my first impression of unions in the US. They were no different from Mexican unions. They were bullies’ (interview with Fernando, former activist, Pasadena Day Labor Association, June 2014).

11 Ibid. 12 Ibid. 13 Ibid. 14 Liberty Hill Foundation grant report on the Pasadena Day Labor Association, November 1995. 15 Pablo Alvarado, letter to Margarita Ramirez, program officer at Liberty Hill Foundation, 20 May 1995.


Thus, the formation of the day laborers into a group enabled them to enter Pasadena’s public sphere, but their entry led them into conflicts with more established groups in these areas. The uncertainty facing the African American community and trade unions aggravated feelings of competition towards immigrant newcomers (Olzak, 1992; Vermeulen, 2006). The immigrants discovered that, despite their efforts to reveal commonalities and find a compromise (meetings, shaming, storytelling), their ‘illegality’ and foreign culture were used to reinforce political distinctions and lack of legitimacy. The immigrants and day laborers were feeling empowered to come out of the shadows and assert their voice in the public sphere, while their adversaries were using their

‘illegality’ to push them back into political oblivion. The group’s boundaries came into sharp relief through their confrontations

with other local groups: ‘It is clear that there were problems but we were also thinking about the future of Pasadena. We wanted a clean city. But others didn’t want Latinos. They said that they didn’t want us, that we were trash. They rejected us, there were many people who didn’t want us’ (interview with Pedro, former activist, Pasadena Day Labor Association, June 2014). Undocumented immigrants and day laborers wanted to

figure 3 Flyer for prospective employers, produced by the IBEW


be a part of the ‘future of Pasadena’ but their opponents considered them to be ‘trash’. The emotionally intensive process of living through these exclusions reinforced group boundaries, promoted solidarity and injected a sense of urgency into the struggle. Undocumented immigrant workers were not ‘trash’ and would continue their struggle to exert their voice, power and equality in the city.

Scaling up and out: localizing, regionalizing, nationalizing day labor activism The struggle for the Job Center precipitated a cascading networking process. The

barriers facing the group required the activists in Pasadena to draw upon increasingly complicated ties to various allied organizations. Local and regional organizations pro­ vided some assistance. These ties facilitated the flow of resources to the campaign and connected Pasadena’s day labor activists to other day laborers, across the region and then the country. The construction of broader networks enabled the circulation of resources, discourses, stories, tactics and strategies across an increasingly distant and complex social movement space. When organizations emerged to formalize these net­ works in the early 2000s, day laborers were in a position to assume an increased role in the national struggle for immigrant rights. Workers on street corners across the country began to realize that there were others out there like them, and that there was a vehicle to harness their voices in local and national political arenas.

— Building a local support base Organizers at the Association and La Escuela de la Comunidad worked at the

Villa Park Community Center, a major hub for the Latino community. This was an important ‘connecting point’ because it put immigrant organizers into contact with  sup portive political officials and non­profit organizations in the Pasadena area. The council member for the district came into contact with the Association and La Escuela because of his heavy involvement with Villa Park. The lead organizer of the Association reached out to the council member, inviting him to an early organizing meeting. These interactions between the council member, the lead organizer and the day laborers proved to be important in getting the council member to support this cause:

Pablo had a couple of training sessions at the Villa Park Community Center. Pablo invited me to come. I got to know some of the guys and some of the ladies who became stalwarts in the organization of day laborers in Pasadena. Once you know people, you hear their stories and you know what they are about. They are no longer a symbolic ‘they’. They are people you know, that you see around. You have to figure out a way to make it work (interview with Frank, former council member, June 2014).

Face­to­face interactions transformed an abstract category (‘they’) into real and con­ crete human beings with fundamental rights. The council member responded by think­ ing about pragmatic ways to address the day labor issue in the city (‘way to make it work’). He became one of the most steadfast supporters of this effort.

Working at Villa Park also helped to connect day labor organizers to the Amer­ ican Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The AFSC is a well­respected Quaker organi­ zation in the city. It provided the Day Labor Association with important infrastructure support to mount the campaign, including office support, a place for community meet­ ings and other miscellaneous needs. Just as important, the AFSC was a respected part of the northwest Pasadena community and connected day laborer organizers to differ­ ent people and organizations in the area. It attempted to mediate relations between different adversaries (the African American community and unions) in the hope of assuaging tensions. Lastly, the AFSC hired the lead day labor organizer (Pablo Alvarado)


as a part­time organizer in late 1994. This released him from his day job and allowed him to commit more time and energy to the campaign.

When the day laborers started to emerge, the council member and the AFSC bro kered relations with other players in the local political arena. Entry into this field unleashed a fast networking process, with many new contacts serving as brokers in their own right: ‘In Pasadena politics, once a project starts, they [politicians and civic organizations] all start to talk to each other. I noticed that everywhere we would go, people would say, “Oh, you need to talk to so and so. You need to talk to the Northwest Commission” … So all the players emerged out of the blue as we made our public appearance’ (interview with Fernando, former activist, Pasadena Day Labor Association, June 2014). Gaining entry into the political field depended on having strong relations with reputable and influential insiders who served as gatekeepers (the council member and the AFSC). This permitted entry into the opaque world of institutional politics and access to information flows concerning players, rules of the game and opportunities/ constraints.

— Connecting Pasadena and regionalizing day laborers As the Pasadena campaign picked up steam, local activists drew attention and

support from larger immigrant rights organizations in neighboring Los Angeles. La Escuela was a project of the Southern California Institute of Popular Education (IDEPSCA), a metropolitan­level organization with relations to immigrant rights organi­ zations in Los Angeles. One of these organizations was the Center of Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). This organization had been working with day laborers since the late 1980s and started a workers’ rights project in the early 1990s. It had already established hiring centers in several localities across the metropolitan region (Patler, 2010). CHIRLA also worked with powerful legal organizations in Los Angeles (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, American Civil Liberties Union) to sue cities that had passed anti­solicitation ordinances. CHIRLA came into contact with Pasadena organizers through IDEPSCA, enabling their experienced staff (Nancy Cervantes in particular) to provide additional advice and support in their campaign.16

In late 1995, Pasadena’s lead day labor organizer moved to CHIRLA to join their workers’ rights project. The move helped the Pasadena campaign gain access to CHIRLA’s networks. Just as important, it helped connect the Pasadena campaign to broader day labor efforts in the region. Pasadena activists and organizers became involved in the effort to create a countywide day labor union made up of workers from different corners and hiring centers. ‘At CHIRLA we met with other workers from other cities to talk about our common problems and to create a union. I didn’t know anybody there except for Marlom [IDEPSCA] and Pablo [Pasadena Day Labor Association]. After that we selected officers. I was named the treasurer of the union. At that time, we had meetings every eight days at CHIRLA and I represented Pasadena’ (interview with Pedro, former activist, Pasadena Day Labor Association, June 2014).

The Pasadena organizers brought with them group­making techniques crafted and perfected in their own locality. Alvarado and his comrades made the popular education methodology a central part of CHIRLA’s organizing campaign. The methodo­ logy was applied to a wide range of activities including workshops, leadership training and organizing campaigns. The Pasadena organizers at CHIRLA also stressed the impor­ tance of community building among the day laborers. They facilitated soccer teams, theater, community events, meals and parties. They introduced a soccer league and a

‘Day Laborer World Cup’. Just as importantly, they instituted democratic methods of

16 Nancy Cervantes, letter of recommendation for the Pasadena Day Labor Association, Liberty Hill Foundation, 23 August 1994.


self­organization at the hiring sites, which contrasted with the hierarchical methods found in professionalized non­profit service organizations. More active workers formed executive committees in which they would propose common rules (behavior at hiring sites, minimum wages), set priorities and develop strategies for the collective. Recommendations by the executive committee would then be discussed and voted on by all workers at frequent assembly meetings. These governance methods were crucial in encouraging workers to view work as a collective rather than an individual affair. It also helped to provide a space where workers could come out of their shells, discussing their common problems and fates with others like themselves. In discussing a hiring site, Alvarado remarked: ‘There is an executive committee that deals with the issues here. The guys have organized a soccer team and a musical band. And the guys write their own corridos’ (Los Angeles Times, 1996). Social and cultural activities, democratic governance and popular education encouraged solidarity and the construction of a critical identity and consciousness at the metropolitan scale. Many day laborers at different work sites across the metropolitan area did not participate in these activities but many others did. The diffusion of these group­making techniques across this regionalized activist space helped scale up the process of constructing day laborers into a political group. These group­making techniques helped geographically and socially dispersed laborers to discover commonalities, strike up friendships and start constructing identities and imaginaries around shared experiences.

Through his work with CHIRLA’s day labor campaign, Pablo Alvarado gained prominence in Pasadena and the Los Angeles region. The Pasadena council member supporting the Job Center in his suburban city used the growing reputation of Alvarado and the inroads made in the city of Los Angeles to drive the project forward. He contrasted the progress that had been made in Los Angeles with the lack of progress in Pasadena, holding Alvarado up as an important leader in the Latino community. Rather than free­riding on the services provided by the central city area (de Graauw et al., 2013), Job Center supporters used the Los Angeles experience as leverage for arguing that similar services were needed in Pasadena. During the mayoral election, one candidate strongly supported the Job Center because it coincided with his pragmatic policy for solving issues and his desire to create a more inclusive city. After winning the election, the mayor helped push forward the Job Center in the City Council, with the support of sympathetic political officials in the northwest district and the activists of IDEPSCA, La Escuela and the Pasadena Day Labor Association. ‘The City leased the property from the landlord, and entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with IDEPSCA to provide services at the site rent­free … The City has entered into a five­year lease of the site, and provides Community Development Block Grant funds to assist IDEPSCA with staffing and other costs’.17

— Building a national network from a regional activist hub Immigrant organizations in cities like Chicago, Seattle, New York, New Orleans,

Washington, DC and Phoenix, among others, were following similar trajectories to those in Los Angeles. Day labor work had become a flashpoint in these localities and activists emerged to organize immigrant workers into new political groups within these metropolitan regions (Theodore et al., 2009). CHIRLA’s day labor project was one of the largest and most developed in the country. Its lead organizers came into con­ tact with other day labor organizations through pre­existing relations and brokered ties. Realizing that there was a need to coordinate their efforts, different organiza­ tions agreed to create a national organization, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON): ‘The idea was that we were going to build this organization so that

17 City Council minutes, 21 April 2003.


it can add value and we can bring more power to the local level, that we could increase the capacity of local organizations to create workers’ centers and fight against anti­ solicitation laws through litigation and big campaigns’ (interview with Pablo Alvarado, executive director, NDLON, April 2011).

NDLON and its allies (local and national) believed that the emerging immigrant rights movement had to turn its attention to increasingly repressive federal and local policies unleashed during the 2000s (Walker and Leitner, 2011; Steil and Vasi, 2014). National policies like 287(g) and Secure Communities introduced methods coordinat­ ing partnerships between federal and local law enforcement agencies (Varsanyi, 2008; Walker and Leitner, 2011). Better coordination enhanced government capacities to detect, detain and deport immigrants. Federally designed and locally implemented enforcement measures reversed previous efforts to fight against local day laborer laws (interview with Pablo Alvarado, executive director, NDLON, April 2011). Just as impor­ tantly, localities and states were passing ordinances and laws that imposed severe restric tions on the lives of undocumented people. These federal and local measures ren­ dered the most ‘public’ immigrants (day laborers) extremely vulnerable to government repres sion. NDLON prioritized campaigns that would maximize political effects at the national scale. From the outset, Arizona was viewed as a particularly strategic target. In 2007, NDLON and its Arizona affiliates began a campaign targeting the sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio. Arpaio was a committed proponent of the federal govern­ ment’s 287(g) program and employed very aggressive tactics to detect and detain immi­ grants in his county. The campaign’s aim was to draw national publicity to the injustices in Maricopa County as a way to discredit the federal government’s 287(g) program. In April 2010, Arizona went on to pass S.B. 1070, the most punitive state­level anti­ immi gration law in the country. By that time, NDLON and its Arizona allies had the infrastructure in place to launch a large­scale campaign. In addition to initiating a series of a protests and a widespread boycott, NDLON, MALDEF and the ACLU filed a lawsuit on 17 May 2010. This claimed that the law violated the civil rights of Latinos and the federal government’s authority in immigration matters. This was followed by another lawsuit by the Department of Justice. This second lawsuit made its way to the Supreme Court, where three out of four provisions of the state law were struck down.

While NDLON helped fight restrictive measures in Arizona, it also backed sup­ portive laws in friendly states like California. NDLON, MALDEF, CARECEN, CHIRLA, undocumented youths (DREAMers) and organized labor undertook a string of cam­ paigns to make California into what they called the ‘anti­Arizona’. As part of this strategy, NDLON mounted a campaign in 2011 to pass a state law restricting police participation in the Secure Communities program. This measure was called the Transparency and Responsibility Using State Tools (TRUST) Act. The TRUST Act aimed to block local law enforcement agencies from holding detainees for federal immigration agents, except in cases when the detainees were accused of certain felonies. Governor Jerry Brown signed the TRUST Act into law on 5 October 2013. As the largest state in the country to have passed this law, immigrant rights advocates improved protection for undocumented immigrants in California while enhancing their leverage with the Obama administration to ease its robust deportation efforts.

During 2013 and 2014, many national­level rights associations turned their atten­ tion to getting comprehensive immigration reform passed in Congress. NDLON, how­ ever, continued to focus on fighting the Obama administration’s deportation policies. In 2013, it helped launch a new campaign (Not One More) asking President Obama to exercise his executive authority to extend deportation relief to all undocumented immigrants. An organizer from NDLON served as a director of the network. No formal affiliation was required to become a member of the network, and organizations often connected through Twitter and Facebook accounts. The steering committee worked


with one another on different kinds of actions (press conferences, hunger strikes, civil disobediences, etc.), developed messaging and mobilization frames, and diffused infor­ mation about actions to network members. While many pro­immigrant organizations initially dismissed the campaign as an unhelpful distraction from comprehensive immi­ gration reform, several prominent organizations (National Council of La Raza, AFL­CIO, etc.) have come out in open support of it. The collapse of comprehensive immigration reform in Congress in 2014 placed the campaign and its goals for executive action at the forefront of the immigrant rights movement. On 20 November 2014, the Obama admin istration used its executive authority to enact a measure granting relief to the parents of citizens and legal permanent residents, and broadening relief criteria for immi grant youths (DREAMers) who had arrived as children.18 These last programs could potentially grant some form of legal status to up to 4.5 million undocumented immigrants.

Conclusion NDLON has scaled up from its local and regional bases in Pasadena and Los

Angeles into one of the most effective immigrant rights organizations in the country. From very small beginnings in a suburb east of Los Angeles, it has become an effective arm of the immigrant rights movement. Its strategy and mobilizing tactics have allowed the organization to chalk up an impressive string of victories: the proliferation of Job Centers across the country, successful litigation against day labor bans, legal and polit­ ical victories in Arizona, the California Trust Act and recent executive measures to provide relief for a substantial number of undocumented immigrants.

NDLON contributed to making a national organizational and relational space that allows day laborers and other undocumented people to come out and assert their grievances in local and national political arenas. Such a space helps connect workers and organizations across great distances, provides them with information about organizing and advocacy tactics, and circulates discourses, symbols and stories of their group. While this space is imperfect, undocumented workers are nevertheless connected to a world far beyond their particular communities and street corners. This has enabled them to form a sense of groupness that is simultaneously both national and local.

The unlikely process of making day laborers into a rather powerful political group was rendered possible because of small and incremental steps unfolding in urban areas. The concentration of day laborers in urban areas provided them with access to organizations and institutions that had already been working with immigrant popula­ tions in the area (La Escuela, Villa Park). Undocumented immigrants and workers were able to connect through these safe spaces, overcome some differences and develop trust for one another. This facilitated their ability to come out and talk about the troubles facing them because of their legal status and class position. These organizations played an active role in shaping political identities through ‘consciousness raising’ methods and the use of narratives that stressed the heroic efforts of undocumented workers to overcome stigma and discrimination in their everyday lives. As the day laborers came into their own as a thinking and feeling political group, they confronted adversaries who denied their legitimacy and place in certain areas of the city. These and other kinds of exclusionary interactions also had a strong effect on shaping the identities of the group.

While the city provided sufficient organizational support to bring the group into existence, the group itself did not have enough resources to sustain itself in an intense struggle for the Job Center. It needed to create a string of networks with local and regional allies. The availability of pre­existing allies, ‘connecting points’ and ‘brokers’

18 Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA); Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)


facil itated networking processes, placing the Pasadena activists into contact with an array of different actors who stepped in to provide support and crucial information about local and regional politics. The momentum of Pasadena and Los Angeles day labor organizations put them into contact with similar organizations across the country, resulting in new networks between these distant actors. The formalization of these networks with the creation of NDLON helped to significantly enhance the strategic and mobilization capacities of this network, while also providing a space for stigmatized people to think and feel themselves a common, proud and powerful group.

Walter Nicholls, Department of Planning, Policy, Design, 300 Social Ecology I, University of California, Irvine, CA 92697-7075, USA, [email protected]

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