Outside the Home Depot on Ponce de Leon Avenue, no one engages in theoretical debates about whether illegal immigrants are competing for jobs with Americans.
Here, the competition unfolds whenever a truck pulls into the parking lot, its driver looking for day laborers.
On any given day, about half of the 30 or so men waiting to pounce on those trucks are Latinos, many of them undocumented. But the rest are African American men like Sam Gibbs. One chilly afternoon, Gibbs, 47, sprinted like a teenager toward a red pickup, hawking his services to two black men inside.
“Take a brother with you!” Gibbs pleaded. “I’m from South Carolina!” He had beaten out a sizable group of Latinos who soon surrounded the truck.
“Hold on guys,” the driver announced. “I need a drywall finisher.” He said he would pay $9 an hour.
Gibbs backed away. The Latinos began negotiating with the driver, who hired one of them for $12 an hour.
“Drywall finisher—that’s a specialty,” Gibbs muttered as he walked back to his spot on the sidewalk near a Dunkin’ Donuts. “Plus, he was only paying $9 an hour.”
In the Deep South, like the rest of the nation, undocumented Latinos have come to dominate many of the corners and parking lots where day laborers gather. But this region is different because of the high percentage of Americans who still compete with Latino immigrants for such jobs. Although U.S.-born workers make up 7% of the day-labor pool nationwide, they account for nearly 20% in the South, according to a 2006 UCLA study.
Indeed, long before the Southern labor landscape was transformed by a tidal surge of Latin American immigrants, blacks and whites populated the “catch-out corners” in Southern communities, whistling and waving after employers in hopes of “catching out on a job” and pocketing a few tax-free dollars.
Many of the black workers who gather on Ponce de Leon today say that they cannot find regular work. Some have been laid off and some have criminal records or addictions. Others are supplementing a primary paycheck, or prefer to work under the radar, earning wages that are difficult to track. One man said he was trying to avoid court-mandated child support payments that he could not afford.
The black laborers speak of their Latino competitors with a mix of resentment, resignation and tolerance. Many reckon that tougher immigration laws would mean more work for them. But they also suspect that some old, familiar prejudices are energizing the anti-illegal-immigrant movement.
Frustration over the Latino presence was palpable in the loud, strained voice of Anthony Curtis, 42, a burly man in an orange parka. “They pick up the majority of the work,” he said, motioning toward the Spanish-speaking men huddled nearby. “They dominate the corner.”
But when Curtis was asked whether he supported a crackdown on illegal immigration, his voice softened. “That’s a hard thing to say,” he said. “You say that, you’re on a racial-type mind-set. All I’m looking for is equal opportunity.”
A 48-year-old Jamaican who gave his name as Valentine said the Caribbean lilt in his voice helped to differentiate him from the American-born black men. When employers heard it, he said, they sometimes traded negative stereotypes for positive ones.
“They know, ‘He going to work,’ “ he said, laughing. “They know Jamaicans can keep three jobs, you know?”
The men agreed that the cards were stacked against them because so many employers came to hire Latinos. Some took offense at the idea that Latinos were more industrious. Others said it was probably true.
Lester Jackson noted that the going rate for an unskilled job out here was $10 an hour. “For a Mexican, that’s a big deal,” he said. “You only make $3 a week in Mexico. . . They’re going to work 10 times harder than an American will.”
Jackson, 53, said the hustle of the Latino workers reminded him of his father’s attitude when opportunities for blacks began to expand after the demise of Jim Crow laws. His father, he said, was thrilled to have the chance to get a decent-paying job, even if it wasn’t a particularly glamorous one.
The men said there were times when it helped to be a black American. Some employers refused to hire illegal immigrants, and some jobs required a native speaker’s command of English.
Though the black workers were resentful of illegal immigrants, they also felt sorry for them. They said they knew first-hand how a day laborer could be injured, stiffed by the boss or left stranded in the boondocks with no bus service. They knew that most illegal immigrants would not complain the way black Americans would because they feared deportation.