Editor’s note: This story is part of a series looking at Arizona’s essential workers and is funded by the Solutions Journalism Network. Arizona Luminaria was selected as one of the newsrooms to participate in SJN’s Labor Cohort.

On a hot, late-September morning, Reggaeton is pumping out of the Nissan Frontier pickup truck, and 52-year-old Pedro Sánchez is shaking his hips, bopping his shoulders. He’s dressed in a turquoise bandanna to catch the sweat if he lands a job today. Big shades are perched on his hat bill. A Gus’s Landscaping long-sleeve shirt, and a metal studded belt hold up jeans that are too big for him.

Pedro has been showing up to work five, six, sometimes seven days a week for the last 18 years. Except that he has nowhere, exactly, to show up to. A freelance construction worker without papers legally allowing him to work in the United States, he struggles to find and keep jobs, get paid on time (or get paid at all), or get compensated for injury.

Pedro is one of a few dozen migrant laborers who do a wide variety of technical and skilled manual labor in and around Tucson. Along with other day-laborers who do not have legal immigration status or authorization to work in the United States, he opted not to share his full name for fear of retaliation. 

“We got people here who can work, who know their trades,” Pedro says in Spanish. “Lázaro puts in copper,” he says, pointing to a man sitting on a nearby curb, “I do welding, that guy there can do electric. We got what you need. I also do landscaping, lumber, construction.”

To help keep themselves safe and get paid their due, Pedro and others lean on and take leadership roles at the day labor center, Tucson’s Southside Worker Center located near the Southside Presbyterian Church in the Santa Rita Park neighborhood near 23rd Street and 10th Avenue.

With immigration politics constantly in flux, including the ever-present fear of arrest by U.S. Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, the center provides both stability and camaraderie to workers who want to work but are hampered by legal restrictions. The center and its workers have also been integral in winning political battles in the state, fighting for and extending worker and immigrant rights.

Across the country, approximately 70 day labor centers are operating to help workers find work and stay safe. Many of the centers belong to the National Day Labor Network which has 55 member organizations.

Opened in 2006, Southside’s founders sought to bring organization and safety to the 100-or-so people frequently looking for work in the nearby streets. Repeated conflict sparked by police and border patrol presence — and an increasingly strident anti-immigrant environment in the state, as well as across the country — pushed workers to seek the collaboration of former Southside Presbyterian Church pastor John Fife, along with social worker and church member Josefina Ahumada.

One of Southside Workers Center’s founders Josefina Ahumada is also now a pastor at Papago United Presbyterian Church, in Sells. “My sense of hope and faith was strengthened by my relationship with these guys. Anyone who can stand on a corner and have confidence they can make a connection and get a job — it takes a lot of faith in yourself and faith in who you’re working for,” Josefina says. Credit: Michael McKisson

Fife was also one of the founders of both the sanctuary movement, which began in the late 1980s, fighting for rights and protection of mainly Central Americans displaced by U.S.-backed violence in Central America. He was also one of the founders of the migrant-aid organization, No More Deaths.

Dealing with wage theft, unsafe working conditions, verbal abuse from bosses, and threats of deportation, the worker center sought safety in numbers, training workers to demand fair wages and reject abuse. Leaders also developed working relationships with neighbors, the city and local police. They did neighborhood cleanups and hosted block parties. Southside became a National Day Labor Network member in 2010 after surviving Arizona’s SB 1070 law, which became widely known nationally as the “Show Me Your Papers” law targeting immigrants.

Besides offering a safe space — though it’s simply a parking lot with a folding table and a few chairs — the center has a water fountain, sink, shade (essential for hot desert mornings) and provides a range of other services, when needed such as English-language workshops, leadership trainings, or connecting people to health or social workers. There’s often also coffee available.

The goal is to assure the Tucson community that the workers  are looking for honest work and deserve basic dignity. With the persistent anti-immigrant climate in Arizona, that is a constant battle.

How to get involved as a volunteer, employer or donate to Southside

Three ways to hire a member of the worker center or donate here:
Fill out the form and someone will contact you to confirm
• In person at 317 W. 23rd St. 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday-Friday. Pull directly into the west parking lot and speak to a coordinator on duty.
• Call (520) 955-8165 or email southsidecentro@gmail.com.
Información en español

Fighting exploitation

Multiple workers described the primary benefit of the Southside Worker Center in simple terms: they get paid more. They don’t have to scrap or plead for wages as much. And when they do get stiffed, they at least have some recourse to try to get those wages back.

The center works with pro-bono attorneys who can help push for wage restitution. At least two workers who spoke with Arizona Luminaria, however, said that seeking help for lost wages wasn’t worth the effort. But they also acknowledged that even the potential backing of attorneys, and the worker center itself, probably helped avert the need in the first place. The workers didn’t want to be named because of their undocumented status.

While some centers rely on city or county funding, and are run by boards that take suggestions from the workers themselves, many, including Southside, are worker-run.

As a 2022 report in the Journal of Labor and Society notes, most day laborers do not have the advantages of “formal labor regulations” protecting them from hostile work environments, abusive employers, wage theft, or unsafe work environments. Though the report takes a mostly qualitative approach to the issue, the authors conclude, “These individual stories and anecdotes combine in aggregate to alarming levels of exploitation across the sample of workers in our study.”

A 2013 study in the Journal of Integrated Social Sciences, looking at day laborer centers in Los Angeles, defined the purpose of such centers as “a space for organizing, advocacy, legitimizing the job market, and creating a community of solidarity in response to the division that normally characterizes the group fighting for the same few jobs.” And yet, the same study notes that, despite the “altruistic ideals,” many centers were more focused on the purpose of containing community conflict.

Despite the many other services that Southside and other day-labor centers offer — workshops, English classes, a sense of community — for the workers, “the issue is finding employment, a way of survival for them and their families.” That priority has long held steady. A 2004 survey of thousands of day laborers found that 98% of them most wanted to find work from the centers.

That struggle to find steady and fairly remunerated work continues today for people like Pedro. The centers become a training ground for vulnerable workers to learn how to advocate for themselves. 

Men wait outside to get connected with people who need workers for the day at the Southside Workers Center in Tucson. Credit: Michael McKisson

Long-running centers with deep community roots like Southside are a space for workers to express their “collective voice as well as for taking collective action, according to a 2005 study from the Economic Policy Institute looking at labor centers from across the country. The analysis concludes, “​​immigrant worker centers have excelled at redefining issues so that the centers are viewed as appropriate advocates for public policy intervention. They are altering the terms of debate and changing the way people understand the world around them, the problems faced by the low-wage worker community, and the possibilities for change.”

A study conducted by Nic Theodore at one of the oldest day laborer centers in the country, Casa Latina in Seattle, found that in 2015 construction workers who obtained jobs from Casa Latina earned over 25% more in wages than workers who found similar jobs at informal hiring sites. In the same year, the hiring rate at the center was more than 15% higher than at informal sites.

“It was clear that the worker center was making a statistically significant impact in raising wages, lowering wage theft, and improving the overall employment conditions,” said Theodore, a professor studying urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois Chicago, in an interview with Arizona Luminaria. The study was conducted for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

How do centers achieve those results? A 2011 study from the Institute for Local Government looked at successful strategies, the first and perhaps most important is for the different parties launching and running a day laborer center to understand, respect, and proactively collaborate with each other.

The other key strategies include: 

  • Fostering leadership among the day laborers
  • Reaching out to and learning from other day laborer centers
  • Establishing and maintaining communication with the surrounding community

Tucson’s Southside center has woven these practices and goals into their mission of fostering a “community of worker-leaders building collective power and raising the standards of worker conditions so that members can take part in dignified work and earn just wages.” The bulk of their core values written on their website boil down to basic human rights: solidarity, justice, dignity, respect.

Ramón is in his early 70s. In September he was in charge of noting on a clipboard the license plate numbers of every vehicle that pulls up at Southside looking for workers. He also helps negotiate the wages and keep order as to who is up for which job. The minimum workers ask for at the center is $18 an hour, though people will negotiate, and sometimes work for less.

 “You need to figure it out for yourself,” Ramón says in Spanish. “When you’re on the job, sometimes it’s just you and the boss.”

Workers who organize at Southside have the support of not only the church, but also law students and attorneys at University of Arizona’s Worker Rights Clinic. Shefali Milczarek-Desai, the law professor who runs the clinic, stressed the importance of “cross-cultural lawyering,” using the knowledge and tools at the law school to follow the lead of the immigrant workers.

Having worked with the center for the last decade, the clinic typically assists a dozen or so workers every semester, helping with wage claims and receiving overtime pay. Getting wages restituted can be a heavy lift, and attorneys aren’t the only way to go about it — worker-led campaigns and up-front advocacy (being clear with contractors at the outset what they owe workers). Still, lawyers provide extra muscle to demands. 

“We let the worker center take the lead in terms of what the community feels is most important to put resources towards, because they have the finger on the pulse in a way that we don’t,” Milczarek-Desai said.   

Francisco wore a red Southside worker-center hat, a long-sleeve white T-shirt, and thick black sneakers. The 44-year-old stood between Ramón and Pedro, hoping for a job. “We spend all day fighting for just the basics, to make money, do some work,” he says in Spanish.

Francisco is originally from Magdalena, Sonora, where he used to work in a mine. After the mine partially shuttered and he was laid off, he worked random jobs for a while, but couldn’t find anything steady, and so he decided to try his luck in the U.S. He has been living in Tucson since 2016. 

“I crossed the border alone, through the mountains, ran into some people who were headed to Tucson, and decided to stay,” he says.

The first job Francisco found in the U.S. was laying tile, earning $6.50 an hour. 

“My boss had me scared,” he says. “He kept saying I shouldn’t talk to anybody because they’d call the migra” — border patrol or immigration officers — “but he just didn’t want to pay me right.” 

Francisco finally talked to another tiler and found out he was being exploited.

Soon, he started coming to the worker center and was landing jobs making $15 an hour. $6.50 an hour amounts to just over $13,500 a year. Whereas $18 an hour, the minimum wage Southside promotes, amounts to $37,400 a year.

He bought a car, a ’97 Camry that didn’t have plates, and parked it in a lot close to Southside Presbyterian. For a few months, as he focused on work and saving money, that car was his home. He learned new trades: carpentry, roofing, landscaping. 

“I like to talk to everybody. I want to learn a little bit of everything,” he says.

“If you don’t ask for it, they’re not going to give it to you. I learned that in my union at the mine. If you don’t complain about bad conditions, your boss isn’t going to fix them. They think, ‘Oh, they’re all good, they’re fine.’ But we’re not fine. We don’t make enough.”

A worker looking for a job for the day at the Southside Worker Center in the Santa Rita Park neighborhood in Tucson feeds some birds while they wait. Credit: Michael McKisson

Another day worker, Feliciano, wishing a truck would pull up soon and offer him a job, chimes in with a suggestion for Arizona Luminaria: “You should go as one of the workers so you can feel the whip, so you see how they don’t give us water.” 

He has a flip phone, huge smile, short gray hair, and was wearing tattered jeans and old sneakers. “They tell us all day that Mexicans are criminals, and yet they keep coming and asking us to work,” he says.

A century in the works

Though the worker center was founded in 2006, the location in south Tucson has been an area where workers have congregated for more than 100 years, going back to the 1920s. 

After the rise of border militarization, beginning under the Clinton Administration in the 1990s, “the seasonal flow was cut off,” Josefina, one of the founders, explains, and workers were basically stuck on this side of the border. That led to more people looking for work, which resulted in congestion in the neighborhood, traffic issues, with some people resorting to calling the police or the border patrol.

Around the same time, the Tucson police started targeting the area for unrelated crimes, and day laborers sometimes got swept up. At one point in the early and mid-2000s, Josefina says, a border patrol truck would park right across the street from the center. 

“They would just sit there and watch us,” she says.

Though Southside doesn’t track numbers, Josefina and others estimate that, on average, six to eight workers find jobs on a daily basis. That amounts to thousands of gigs that people have been able to line up over the years. 

In the early years, workers and organizers needed to adjust from the more cutthroat competitive approach of scrambling for jobs, to a cooperative model. Though there were never enough jobs, workers stuck it out, even through the beginning of the recession and the hostility of SB 1070 in 2010. 

Raul Alcaraz Ochoa helped grow the center’s leadership training, self-governance, and participation in immigrant rights advocacy. Currently, the center is run by its own board of directors. Throughout the years of organizing and advocating for basic worker rights, eventually the center was accepted into the community. That hasn’t been the case in other cities, in Arizona and elsewhere.

Phoenix’s Macehualli Work Center opened in 2003 and quickly became a target for anti-immigrant nativists.

The xenophobic political situation in Arizona is what Salvador Reza, one of Macehualli’s founders, says led to its shuttering. The recession was another factor.

“FAIR and Judicial Watch,” Salvador says, referencing extreme rightwing groups, teamed up with former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Russell Pearce, former Arizona state senator, “to attack the day labor center and corners as part of their campaign to use day laborers as the face of ‘illegal’ immigration.”

In 2005, former Arizona Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano signed a bill that prohibited funding of any migrant day labor center. The bill both financially hampered worker centers and kept them in the political crosshairs. 

Tucson’s Southside center is funded from a variety of sources: the workers’ own fundraising efforts, including a 2022 quinceañera party celebrating 15 years of organizing, as well as grants and private donations. The church also allows them to use a room and the parking lot for free.

By the early 2010s, as the economy picked back up, day laborers in Phoenix were back looking for work, but soon they had nowhere safe to do it from: Macehualli closed in 2016. Anti-immigrant nativists used day laborers, “as a political prop,” Reza explains.

“We survived 13 years under the harshest conditions,” Reza says. “I think the difference between Tucson and us is that Tucson is a much more progressive city. We were in the center of the hurricane.”

The Southside Workers Center is associated with Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church in the Santa Rita Park neighborhood near 23rd Street and 10th Avenue. Credit: Michael McKisson

Jorge, a worker from Sinaloa waiting outside the Tucson center on a frigid December morning, explains the difference between looking for work on his own, as undocumented workers in Phoenix are forced to do, or with others and the support of a center.

“I’ll clean up dog crap, give me whatever job,” he says in Spanish. “As long as it’s fair wages.”

“I feel like, though we’re from different parts, from all over, I feel like we’re brothers, that we have community,” Jorge says. It’s different than when you’re just in a parking lot at Home Depot, he explains. “People can take more advantage of you there.”

Worker centers look beyond work

“We don’t guarantee the work, we just provide the space, and try to keep it safe,” Josefina says.

Early on during the pandemic, when work was drying up, the church distributed a $400 “stimulus check,” as Francisco describes it, in cash, plus cellphones to workers who didn’t have them.

As the pandemic dragged on, the center offered a few other shots of money, including donated Walmart gift cards, usually around $40. As little as it may seem, the extra help was especially important as the federal government did not offer economic support to undocumented migrants during the pandemic. Four states, as well as some local jurisdictions, offered some pandemic relief funds to frontline workers without legal immigration status and undocumented families.

And yet, as COVID-19 took hold, as an article in Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine shows, undocumented day laborers were disproportionately exposed to the virus, even while they had less access to medical services or support to stay at home to keep safe or quarantine. According to one survey conducted by New Immigrant Community Empowerment — a member of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network — 41 percent of respondents were at risk of losing their homes.

Besides direct services, including the rare cash payment, Southside has also been on the front lines of various political battles.

In conjunction with National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the center was one of the plaintiffs in the SB 1070 lawsuit, which was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and other parties and challenged the notorious 2010 anti-immigrant law that turned Arizona into the epicenter of the immigration fight in the country.

By 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down one of the more draconian measures of the SB 1070 law, which targeted day laborers, making immigrants without legal status who seek or accept work guilty of a state crime.. In 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a lower court’s ban on an SB 1070 provision that prohibited occupants of motor vehicles from hiring or attempting to hire “a person for work at another location from a stopped car that impedes traffic, or for a person to be hired in such a manner,”according to the ruling. Opponents claimed that the laws violated the First Amendment by restricting commercial speech.

“Day laborers saved the First Amendment for everybody in Arizona,” Chris Newman, legal director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network told Arizona Luminaria.

“Day laborers and their worker centers have been central to so much in Arizona, not just contributing to the economy, to keeping the construction industry humming, but pushing back against the likes of Joe Arpaio and the anti-immigrant vigilantes,” Newman said.

One of Southside Workers Center’s founders Josefina Ahumada. Credit: Michael McKisson

A part of the community

“My father was a day laborer in Los Angeles,” Josefina explains. “He dug ditches until he got a job as a welder.”

She is now a pastor at Papago United Presbyterian Church, in Sells.

“When you get to know these guys, they win your hearts,” she says, describing how day laborers inspired her to become a pastor. “My sense of hope and faith was strengthened by my relationship with these guys. Anyone who can stand on a corner and have confidence they can make a connection and get a job — it takes a lot of faith in yourself and faith in who you’re working for.”

The intangible benefits — bolstering confidence and developing relationships and trust — are not lost on either Josefina or the workers. 

“Having the center gives a sense of place, you become part of the community, there’s less animosity with neighbors,” Josefina says.

And yet, becoming part of the community doesn’t provide legal status, and undocumented workers continue to live in precarity. As the 2013 study on centers in Los Angeles concluded, day labor centers provide “a topical treatment,” but without a fundamental change in the larger policies, “the centers do not have the necessary opportunities to truly help these workers.” 

“Life would look very different for these guys with immigration reform,” Josefina says.

“We need more help,” Francisco puts it plainly. “We know there are jobs, but just a lot of them we can’t work.”

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John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...