Hard Labor


By Ajay Singh, Photos by Ara Oshagan

Published Apr 1, 2006 8:00 AM

On a chilly Saturday morning in January, some 100 Minutemen, veterans and activists, many of them brandishing American flags, gather on a sidewalk in front of a Home Depot store in Burbank, Calif. As police in riot gear stand on alert, they shout into bullhorns and wave posters and banners accusing Home Depot of promoting illegal immigration because it allows day laborers to congregate outside its walls.

“Illegal immigration lowers wages and steals U.S. jobs,” declares one poster. “Americans made America great,” reads a banner, adding a rebuke: “Mexicans made Mexico great … to leave.”

Across the street, another throng of protesters — equal in size and passion — counters with its own taunts and jeers. “Go back to Europe,” they cry. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, this racist scum has got to go.”

Nearby at a day-labor worker center built by the local city council to keep laborers from soliciting work from the streets, most of the workers have left for fear of being arrested or because, seeing the protests, prospective employers stayed away.

Cesar, a Guatemalan who admits he’s been living without papers in Los Angeles for the past six years, has stayed to watch the flag-wavers and the dancers fling insults at each other. “Why don’t they want us here?” he asks. “They say they are offended by our presence, but we are offended, too — by their hate.”

Similar collisions are taking place in big cities and small towns all over the country. The face-off in Burbank, in fact, is only one of many confrontations in a controversy that has taken on what the Salt Lake Tribune recently described as “a frenzy bordering on hysteria.”