SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Every morning at sunrise, dozens of men like Marcelo Perez line the sidewalks and public areas near Home Depot and other hardware stores in San Diego County.
They stand at the ready, some with lunch boxes or bags of tools by their side, and their eyes follow the approaching vehicles. When a car, SUV or especially a pickup truck stops nearby, they all rush in. But in a matter of seconds one of them jumps into the passenger's side and the vehicle is gone. The men go back to the sidewalk, to wait.
"I've been coming to this corner for two or three years since work slowed down at the (construction) company I worked for. You have to be here early because few cars stop after 10 a.m. and you have to learn to read people or they will take advantage of you," said Perez, a Mexican immigrant in his 50s who sent two children to college by building homes in east San Diego County.
Perez and the others are part of a pool of thousands of laborers employed primarily by homeowners and a few contractors looking for cheap, semi-skilled labor for landscaping, roofing, fencing and other small-scale construction jobs, says Nelson Gamio, a labor activist who worries about the wage-theft and uncompensated accidents these men and a few women often suffer.
"Many people think they don't have (immigration) papers and they take advantage of them. The law says they have to pay you for work done regardless of your immigration status," said Gamio, assistant director of a group called The San Diego Workers Center, on Imperial Avenue.
Gamio said many of these so-called day laborers are San Diego residents who are aging and got tired of the 40-week routine. Others do come from Tijuana and elsewhere in Mexico. Since the migrant surge of last October, he has also seen Central Americans and even Haitians.
But regardless of where they come from, the Center provides advice, resources from the Labor Department and other government agencies and referrals to social services. After meeting with advocates recently, the day laborers have started to demand $15 an hour, whereas before they would take $12 or even $10.
Gamio says he advocates for day laborers because he, too, was once a struggling immigrant and knows what it's like to put in a hard day's work and later be told by the boss that he won't pay you.
"I got a job with a remodeling contractor. He paid me daily and he paid me little. But when he didn't pay me at all for weeks, I went to Labor Commission and I got my money, not all of it, but half of it," said Gamio, who earned a bachelor's degree in economy in his native Peru but had to work on the streets when he migrated to the United States 11 years ago.
Winning his wage-theft case taught him that it's possible to stop people from exploiting immigrant labor. "I was impressed by what you can do in this country when a government agency or an organization supports you," he said.
According to a 2014 report published by the Economic Policy Institute, up to two-thirds of hourly workers in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York have experienced wage theft in their lifetime. This includes not only refusal to pay for work performed, but also not paying overtime.
Spreading the word on the streets
Nearly every day laborer interviewed this week by BorderReport.com shared stories about being bilked by employers.
"My mistake was not asking for my money at the end of every day. It was a four-day job taking out furniture from floors 20 through 24 of a hotel. The (contractor) said he would pay us on Friday, but by Friday he was gone," said Juan Hernandez, a regular outside the Home Depot off Imperial Avenue.
Hernandez said The Workers Center helped him track down the contractor, but when he went to demand his money, he learned the contractor had listed someone else's address. "The man who was there had a stack of papers with the information of people who had come to look for the guy," he said.
Hernandez eventually found out the contractor is based out of Murrieta, Calif. "I wasn't going to chase him to Murrieta, so I let it go," he said.
Others said they're hired by individuals who ask them for an estimate on a job, agree to the fee but end up paying less, arguing they didn't like the end-result. "This always happens after you have finished the job. They see what you are doing from the beginning, if they don't like something, they should tell you right away. They just say that to save themselves some money at the end of the day," said Perez.
The semi-retired construction worker says he's sought legal advice on occasion and has been told "it's not worth it to go to court for less than $5,000." In the end, most day laborers end up absorbing the loss but making sure word gets on the street not to work for that homeowner or contractor.
Double-speak on illegal immigration
Gamio said federal immigration officers periodically drive by the larger hardware stores in search of unauthorized workers. And since the hardline talk against illegal immigration spearheaded by then-candidate Trump, a few citizens drive by and harass the day laborers.
On Monday, a few of the workers interrupted interviews being conducted by BorderReport.com, demanding that all recordings made at a small public park across the Home Depot be erased. One man started recording this reporter and said he would post the video on Facebook in retaliation.
"The environment on immigration is a lot more tense since Trump. The day laborers are nervous," including those who have papers but are targets of scorn nonetheless, Gamio said.
Some of the immigrant workers said Americans seem to have a double standard when it comes to unauthorized migrants, for they chastise them in public but end up hiring them as handymen, maids, babysitters and factory workers.
Gamio said that in southern and eastern San Diego County, a great portion of houses built in the past generation were put together by the hands of immigrants.
"People just don't like to hear the truth," said day laborer Perez.