Approaching the U-Haul Store on Hollywood Boulevard is like entering a bustling market. A gaggle of workers swarm you, politely placing business cards into your hand, offering their services. They boast names like “Victor Faster,” “The Smart,” and “Orlando Moving.” Soaring bald eagles, 17-foot long trucks, and cartoons pushing loaded dollies adorn the glossy cards.
The men are day laborers who prowl the parking lot hoping to be hired by someone moving.
“We don’t have papers,” said 41-year-old Manuel – who, like everyone interviewed for this story, declined to give a last name. “So we come to the corners.”
Day laborers are a ubiquitous sight in Los Angeles. According to a UCLA study, an estimated 15,000 – 20,000 day laborers worked in Southern California in the late 1990s. Those numbers have likely risen in the past 20 years. Along with frequenting U-Haul stores, many wait in the parking lots of hardware giants like Home Depot looking for a day’s work. Few, if any, have papers.
The work is hard, the hours long, the pay unpredictable. Manuel said on a good day he’d make $80 cash hauling furniture and boxes for eight hours. On an OK afternoon, he might split $100 bucks evenly with a friend. And on a bad day?
“On bad days we don’t work,” piped in Jorge, a 44 year old from outside Guatemala City, Guatemala.
With the passing of the Arizona Bill and the current brouhaha over repealing the 14th amendment, immigration has again reemerged as a national flashpoint. And while attitudes in Los Angeles are more open towards immigrants – especially considering that nearly 40% of the population is foreign born – the metropolitan area is by no means immune to anti-immigrant fervor.
Indeed, this past June, the city council of Redondo Beach – a Los Angeles suburb – passed legislation banning day laborers from soliciting work on sidewalks, citing public safety. Back in April, white supremacists shouted “Sieg Heil” and other slurs at immigrants during a demonstration next to City Hall in downtown Los Angeles.
But for now at least, Los Angeles remains a relatively open environment for those working off the grid. Last July, the Los Angeles City Council voted to boycott Arizona following the passage of its controversial immigration bill.
It is in part due to Los Angeles’ tolerance that immigrants stay. People who hire them, Manuel and other workers said, generally treat them well.
“The Americans are nice,” said Manuel. “Sometimes they invite us to expensive restaurants for steaks. They give away things, clothes, beds. When working they’ll give us a ten minute break every hour.”
Nevertheless, the occasional benevolence of employers is no substitute for guaranteed rights. None of the workers interviewed had health insurance and do not qualify for any programs like food stamps, welfare, or Medicaid.
“I never go to the hospital,” added Jorge, the Guatemalan.
The UCLA study found that about half of day laborers reported instances of wage theft.
“I’ve worked days,” said Manuel, “and when I asked for my wages, they threatened to take me to the police.”
After crossing Mexico by La Bestia, or the Beast, a freight train known for the gangs and cops that prey on the migrants hopping them, Manuel arrived in Los Angeles. He now shares a three bedroom apartment in Hollywood with five other immigrants, paying $100 a month in rent. Any money he saves, he sends home to his wife and daughter in El Salvador.
Manuel has been in the US for 10 years and because he lacks papers, he hasn’t been home for even a single visit.
“I’ll go home once they pass immigration reform,” he said, hopefully.
Years away from home seems to be a trait many migrants share. Jorge has been in Los Angeles for 25 years and has yet to visit his home in suburban Guatemala City. Orlando, something of an elder statesman with 55 years behind him, left Mexico City for Los Angeles 15 years ago. He hasn’t visited home once.
“I’ll return home one day,” Orlando mused beneath the shade of a tree beside Hollywood Boulevard. “I just don’t know when.”
With a divided public and mid-term elections quickly approaching, any comprehensive immigration reform remains illusive. Until then, the men who ply the U-Haul parking lot plan on staying put.
“The residents here,” said Manuel, taking in the sunny vista of Hollywood, “they need immigrants.”
Sammy Loren is a documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist currently based in Los Angeles, California. To check out his other projects visit, nuevaorleansmovie.wordpress.com
Photo from Indymedia