THOSE People

The illegal immigrants gather each morning in search of a day’s work—cutting our grass, painting our homes, preparing our meals.

It’s 6:30 am. The sun is peeking over the elevated tracks of the Morristown train station. Along busy Morris Street, a multitude of mostly short, swarthy men dressed in work clothes and baseball caps wait along a stretch of sidewalk known as la esquina, Spanish for “the corner.” Once focused at the intersection of Morris and King streets, la esquina now stretches for three blocks along both sides of Morris Street, one of Morristown’s main arteries. A decade ago, there might have been half a dozen men looking for work each morning at la esquina. Today, there are 150. The men peer into each car and truck that approaches and surround the ones that stop, at considerable danger to themselves and to others in vehicles rushing by. “Me work hard,” they shout, jostling each other. The scene is reminiscent of the Hoboken shape-up of longshoremen in On the Waterfront, or Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 television documentary Harvest of Shame.

Morristown, with a population of nearly 19,000, is the seat of the third wealthiest county in the United States. Some of New Jersey’s largest law firms are based here, and Fortune 500 companies make their headquarters nearby. Like many towns across New Jersey, Morristown attracts large numbers of Latino day laborers, most of them recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America. From the train station, Morris Street leads up a hill to the town’s lovely Colonial-era Green, the epicenter of the downtown business district. Head north from the Green and you’ll hit Speedwell Avenue, where many day laborers shop and live, often in overcrowded conditions. These two streets, where the language, food, music, and people are markedly different than those prevalent elsewhere in town, seem as if they were located in another country.

Not everyone on Morris Street gets hired each morning, especially in winter, when no exterior painting or landscaping work is available. At nine o’clock on a recent morning, I try to engage in conversation one of the few workers who remain, an uncharacteristically tall, slim young man named Carlos. “Y su apellido?” I ask. (“And your surname?”) “Carlos,” he repeats, “nada mas que Carlos.” (“Just Carlos.”) Suspicious of a gringo speaking Spanish, Carlos obviously doesn’t want his last name known. He hasn’t traveled from Guatemala through Mexico (where he was forced to bribe the Mexican police three times), sneaked across the border into Arizona, crossed the Sonora desert, where illegals sometimes die, and made it all the way to this street in New Jersey only to get in trouble now.

Carlos and I cross Morris Street to the plaza in front of the train station, where Linda Short, a volunteer with Viento del Espiritu (Wind of the Spirit), an immigrant aid group, is conducting an open-air English class for eight men who didn’t get a job today. One of them doesn’t even speak Spanish, and the others are trying to explain things to him. He’s a member of an indigenous Guatemalan tribe. A number of such people in Morristown speak Mam or Quiché and virtually no Spanish.

Carlos soon tires of the instruction. “Me da un dolor de cabeza,” he says. (“It gives me a headache.”) He allows me to tag along with him as he walks up to the Morristown Green and then out Speedwell Avenue. Unfailingly polite, Carlos invites me into a small house just off Speedwell on Early Street, where he lives with eighteen other men. “Esta en su casa,” he says. (“My house is your house.”) Every room, including the attic and basement, contains cots or mattresses. Hot plates and extension cords snake everywhere, obvious fire hazards. It is a scene of Dickensian squalor. The space that Carlos rents is not a room, exactly—more like a hallway. He was paying $500 a month rent, but now he sublets half the space. There’s another mattress now tucked behind his. Even $250 seems a lot of money for such miserable accommodations.

But in good weather Carlos can get work six days a week, earning about $600, which is more than ten times what he could earn in Guatemala—if he could find work at all. Just 23 years old, he has a wife and two children back home. Every week, from one of the several Envios (remittance) shops on Speedwell Avenue, he wires them half the money he’s earned. Carlos would work seven days a week if he could. Last September he showed up on Morris Street on Labor Day, figuring there would be plenty of work on a day dedicated to labor.

I invite Carlos to lunch and he gratefully accepts. “Mejor que quedarme en casa,” he says. (“Better than staying home.”) On this stretch of Speedwell, virtually every brightly painted business sign for four blocks is in Spanish. Storefronts are decorated with strings of lights and neon signs, and salsa music pours into the street. Here it seems like it’s always Christmas. Although poor, this is the liveliest part of Morristown, especially at night, when those returning from work hang out on the street, play pinball in the bars, and fill the restaurants to overflowing. There are quite a few Latino restaurants with names like Galapagos, La Casa del Pollo, and Futbolandia. Carlos favors El Portal, which features Colombian food. The dishes we order—meat of uncertain origin, lots of beans, white rice, fried green bananas—is barely tolerable, but the portions are huge. While I pick at my food, Carlos wolfs his as if uncertain when he’ll eat next. After lunch, Carlos thanks me. We say, “Hasta pronto” (“See you soon”), something we both know is unlikely to happen, and step out onto Speedwell Avenue.

Latino day laborers are a regular topic of conversation in the historic district of Victorian homes where I live, only blocks off the Green in another direction. Neighbors who tend to refer to the workers as “those people” speak of the marked increase in the immigrant population as an “invasion.” Other neighbors, more likely to describe them as “undocumented workers,” tend to celebrate their contributions to the town. It depends on whether one sees illegal immigrants as parasites or as the latest wave of humanity pursuing the American dream—indistinguishable from the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, and others who came to the United States fleeing oppression or seeking opportunity. Today an estimated 12 million immigrants (some sources go as high as 20 million) live illegally in the United States; their population in New Jersey is estimated to be as high as 700,000.

One might expect liberals to be routinely supportive, conservatives routinely antagonistic, but attitudes toward day laborers often have little to do with a person’s politics on other issues. “I’m not prejudiced, but these people aren’t like earlier immigrants,” says one neighbor of mine, a liberal Democrat ordinarily full of compassion for the downtrodden. (Like many people I interviewed for this story, my neighbor prefers to remain anonymous.) “They’re illegal, and they exhaust public services without paying taxes. As a doctor, I know that in the past immigrants were screened for communicable diseases. Illegals aren’t screened by anyone.” He mentions a CNN report about a precipitous rise in tuberculosis and hepatitis carried into the United States by illegal immigrants, most of it found in six states, including New Jersey.

Another neighbor, Todd Fearn, a conservative Republican who owns an IT consulting firm, thinks day laborers provide a valuable ingredient in the American economy. He disapproves of unions and holds the belief that the country “was built by cheap labor.” Paying day laborers $10 an hour in cash, he says, “is good for the day laborers and good for America.”

My Republican neighbor’s view is not unlike that of Diana Mejia, the activist co-director of Viento del Espiritu. “Day laborers meet a need,” Mejia tells me when we meet in her office on Market Street, just off the Green. “They should be welcomed and respected.” The slogan of her organization is, “No human being is illegal.” No one would quarrel with that sentiment, but Mejia also believes there’s nothing wrong with day laborers crossing the Mexican border to get here. “California, Arizona, and New Mexico were all stolen from Mexico in 1848,” she says. “When these people enter the United States, it’s a homecoming.” Whatever the truth of this statement, the Mexican War of 1846–48 was certainly one of America’s most problematic, if not imperialistic, wars, fought largely to appease the South by extending slavery to the West.

President George W. Bush would find himself sharing some of Mejia’s ideas on illegal immigrants. He’s in favor of a guest worker program for immigrants now living in the United States. Yet each year an estimated 1 million people illegally cross our southern border even though, after 9/11, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was made part of the Department of Homeland Security. Television personalities from Jay Leno to Lou Dobbs have joked that the best way for an Islamist terrorist to enter the United States is to relocate to Mexico and learn Spanish.

No one in Morristown is suggesting a link between illegal immigration and the threat of terrorism. Still, residents who oppose the presence of day laborers in town do tend to cite the few highly publicized cases in which illegal immigrants have committed violent crimes—in particular, the 2001 rape and murder of a ten-year-old boy, the son of legal immigrants from Guatemala who were working toward citizenship, by an illegal immigrant from Honduras. People who live in the Cutler Park neighborhood also raise quality-of-life concerns. On occasion, they say, they wake up on Sunday mornings to find Latino immigrants passed out on their lawns after a night of heavy drinking.

I had my own run-in with a local immigrant not long ago. A woman ran a stop sign and crashed into my car as I drove along Maple Avenue in Morristown. I swerved, but my car was struck so hard it spun around and ended up facing the opposite direction. Neither the woman nor I was hurt. My heartbeat slowed and my anger over my wrecked car abated when my services were required as an interpreter for the police officer at the scene, who spoke no Spanish, and for the woman, who spoke no English. The newspapers had been full of stories about forged licenses carried by illegal immigrants and even some crooked Department of Motor Vehicles personnel selling them phony licenses. I never learned the woman’s immigration status, but I kept wondering: Was her driver’s license legitimate?

Of course, illegal immigrants are themselves often the victims of crime. Having no Social Security numbers, they cannot open bank accounts and frequently walk around with considerable amounts of cash in their pockets. Thieves have been known to lie in wait for day laborers. According to Peter Demnitz, the Morristown police chief, several day laborers have been beaten up and robbed of their money after being dropped off by contractors at the end of a long day. Jorge Tenecela, 36, a native of Ecuador who came to the United States twenty years ago, gained legal status, and now works for a Morristown-based landscaper, says that some unscrupulous contractors hire day laborers and then refuse to pay them, or abandon them at the work site, sometimes miles from Morristown. Concerned about keeping their immigration status a secret, illegal Latinos often are afraid to report crimes against them.

Let me confess that I’m of a divided mind on the issue of day laborers. I’ve seen some aspects of life in Morristown degraded by the influx of illegal immigrants. Yet my four grandparents passed through Ellis Island, so I have an innate sympathy for immigrants. And as someone who lived for years in Spanish-speaking countries, I have an affinity for Latinos and their culture. I have friends in the long-standing Latino community in Morristown who are sometimes embarrassed by their illegal counterparts. As one such friend, now a citizen, put it to me, “Why should I be tarred with the illegals’ brush? They give the rest of us Latinos a bad name.”

My ambivalence was reflected when I found myself questioning remarks by Bruce Springsteen while introducing the song “Matamoros Banks” at a concert last year at Continental Airlines Arena. “Whether they’re legal or not, when you look out on your bright green lawn, remember who cuts it,” Springsteen said. “When you eat strawberries and asparagus, remember whose hands are also present at your table.”

Springsteen might also have mentioned that it is partly because many immigrants work for such low wages that food is relatively cheap in the United States. At the same time, some economists believe that their willingness to work long hours for low pay contributes to unemployment and depresses the wages of American citizens, especially of the poor. Actually, a salary of $10 per hour, untaxed, is far better than is made by anyone toiling for the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour.

With Morristown’s Latino population surging in recent years, concerns over immigration issues show no signs of abating. Sometime during the 1990s, the number of Hispanics in Morristown surpassed the number of African-Americans. According to the U.S. Census, the Hispanic population more than doubled during the decade, to 5,034, while the African-American population fell by nearly 16 percent, to 3,144. The shifting demographics have led to some cases of ethnic strife between Latinos and African-Americans. Recent immigrants have moved into traditionally black neighborhoods, such as Manahan Village, a low-income housing project now predominantly Latino. Latinos have opened bodegas and grocery stores on the margins of black neighborhoods.

David Walker, the African-American director of Neighborhood House, just off Speedwell Avenue, says that when the settlement house was founded in 1898, it served the Italian immigrant community, later transitioning to meet the needs of African-Americans. Today its activities, including preschool and after-school programs, serve a mostly Latino clientele. Walker, who also serves with the Black and Latino Action Coalition, says that working-class families are finding it difficult to buy homes in Morristown these days because many houses are bought by speculators, who then rent them to large groups of day laborers, a scenario known as “stacking.”

“They buy the houses and stack them with nineteen or twenty day laborers, each paying $500 a month,” Walker says. “That’ll pay off your mortgage in a hurry.” The impact of illegal immigrants on Morristown’s quality of life extends beyond stacked houses. The morning gathering of day laborers along Morris Street has caused some businesses to suffer. Howie Lewis, proprietor of Moore’s, a much-loved, old-fashioned hardware store on Morris Street, says, “Some old customers won’t come into my store any more because they have to run the gauntlet of these guys congregated outside. They’re like the squeegee men who used to bug people in New York.” Lewis waits until most day laborers are hired for the day before opening his store later in the morning than he’d like, missing out on business from contractors. “The only business I get from day laborers is keys,” he says. “Some guy comes in and orders twenty of the same key. I don’t like making those keys because I know what they’re for—the twenty guys who are going to live in a stacked house.”

George Carella, an insurance agent, moved his business around the corner from Morris Street to Wilmot Street, partly because of the presence of day laborers outside his State Farm office. His female employees, according to office manager Maria Alvarado, “couldn’t take the obscene remarks and gestures” they were subjected to on their way to work each morning. “We were petrified,” Alvarado says. “And it was the worst for the young Latina woman who used to work here. She really understood what those guys were saying.”

Asked why this behavior isn’t stopped, Peter Demnitz, Morristown’s police chief, says, “You can’t arrest people for leering, and even if you could, someone would have to press charges.”

The economic survival of day laborers in New Jersey’s suburbs involves complicity at many levels of society. Imagine if 150 prostitutes lined up on Morris Street each day instead of 150 manual laborers. The contractors who hire illegal immigrants and pay them off the books in cash—no taxes or social security or disability or unemployment taken out, and no paperwork—are committing illegal acts, much like the johns who keep prostitutes in business.

My neighbors would fall into this category as well. When they want their garages painted, their roofs patched, their gardens weeded and lawns cut, they cruise down to Morris Street in their SUVs and pick up a carload of workers. I suppose I’ve been something of a john myself. When it was time to have my house painted, I got two estimates. One was for $20,000, the other for $10,000. Guess which estimate I went for? Were the Latino workers, who spoke virtually no English, here illegally? Were taxes paid on the $10,000 I gave my contractor? I haven’t a clue. (Frankly, I never thought about it at the time.)

One of my neighbors, Anthony Allocco, received an e-mail from an unknown source saying, “Pay your taxes. Twelve million Latinos are counting on you.” Though meant as a joke, that e-mail has great resonance for homeowners in Morristown, who often complain that their property taxes have escalated because the children of illegal immigrants are being educated in local public schools. There’s really no way to confirm their complaints: The school district is prohibited by federal law from inquiring about a student’s immigration status. Yet retailers such as Tom Rago, of Rago Brothers Shoe Repair on Speedwell Avenue, says the influx of recent immigrants is the best thing that’s happened to Morristown. “Speedwell used to be dead,” Rago says. “Look at it now—not an empty store, full of life!”

Not everyone would describe Speedwell’s streetscape as lively. Marty Epstein, owner of Marty’s Reliable Cycle, a bicycle shop a block away from Rago Brothers, says, “I feel sorry for these people, but they’ve created a heck of an eyesore, and my business is suffering terribly. I don’t know how long I can hold out. And it isn’t just me. If retail collapses, the town goes with it.”

Myra Bowie, who lives in the Cutler Park neighborhood adjoining Speedwell Avenue, says she no longer walks to the Green along Speedwell—“Who can take that harassment?”—nor does she let her children do so. “In a sense,” she says, “we’re prisoners in our neighborhood.” Bowie is a member of the Cutler Park Neighborhood Association, which meets once a month at the Montessori Children’s House on Cutler Street to discuss how to protect the neighborhood against what residents see as a veritable assault by those buying up houses and filling them with day laborers. “Stacking is the key issue for us,” says Jonathan Ramsfelder, Bowie’s neighbor and a fellow member of the neighborhood association. “If something isn’t done soon, middle-class people like us may move away.”

That’s exactly what Laura Fernandez-Young and her family did. “The quality of life in Morristown has diminished for me and my family,” she wrote to the Daily Record several years ago. “We the people who work and pay taxes legitimately should have somebody worrying about our rights. My husband and I did something about the day laborers in Morristown. Me, after living there fifteen years and my husband all his life. We moved.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Jonathan Ramsfelder says. “We love our neighborhood, and what we like most about it is its diversity; it is very diverse, including lots of terrific American Latinos. But living up the street from a house full of single men who are here illegally, who shout on their cell phones all the time and urinate in the backyard, and who have no interest whatsoever in our neighborhood or in Morristown—and having to tell our kids they can’t play in the street—that’s simply unacceptable. Our neighborhood is zoned single-family use. All we’re asking is that the town enforce its own ordinances.”

There are signs that this is beginning to happen. The town has hired two new inspectors, and raids on stacked houses are being conducted regularly, usually around 4 am, when day laborers are at home sleeping and are easily counted. Former mayor Jay Delaney created a second municipal court devoted strictly to housing issues. Property owners who stack houses with day laborers used to receive a slap on the wrist. Now they receive fines as high as $30,000, with some serving jail time. “There’s lots more to be done,” Myra Bowie says, “but we’re cautiously optimistic.”

If there has been some progress on the housing front along Speedwell Avenue, what of the commercial strip along Morris Street? Delaney favors creating an out-of-the-way muster zone where contractors can pick up day laborers without affecting local businesses. Yet when Freehold tried a muster zone, the number of workers who congregated there grew to several hundred. When the borough moved to close the zone, immigrant advocates filed a lawsuit. Freehold reopened a smaller muster zone, reducing the daily gathering of day laborers to a few dozen. Meanwhile, in Burlington County, Riverside passed an ordinance in July that would prohibit anyone from hiring or renting to illegal immigrants, a move expected to prompt a court challenge.

Morristown’s new mayor, Donald Cresitello, says that he isn’t sure a muster zone is a workable response. He’s discussed the idea with local institutions possessing possible muster sites, but he says, “It’s been all NIMBYism so far—not in my back yard. Besides, these people are here illegally, and contractors picking them up are committing a crime. Is it Morristown’s responsibility to make things comfortable for people carrying on illicit trade? I don’t think so.”

Cresitello has directed the police department to patrol Morris Street every morning from seven to nine o’clock, keeping day laborers from blocking the doorways of businesses and pulling over contractors, taking down their license plate and registration numbers and advising them that a report on their illegal activity will be filed with the state Department of Labor. “Who knows if the state will actually do something,” Cresitello says, “much less the Feds, but maybe it’ll be a deterrent.”

Asked one morning how effective he thinks the police department’s efforts have been, the officer on Morris Street duty replies, “So-so. There are less contractors picking up day laborers here, but I think they’re just picking them up elsewhere in town. In fact,” he says, pointing, “see that group of day laborers around the corner on King Street? I bet contractors are pulling up there. I’ll check that spot tomorrow. But let’s face it: This thing with the day laborers—no matter what we do and no matter what laws are passed and no matter how high a wall they build at the border—the best we can do is keep it under control; it ain’t ever going away.”

It sure ain’t. A few days later, on May 1, “A Day Without Immigrants” rallies and boycotts are held across the nation in an effort to demonstrate how much illegal immigrants contribute to the American economy. In Morristown, many Latinos stay out of work, Latino children stay home from school, and businesses are shuttered along Speedwell Avenue. On Morris Street there are many more contractors trolling for workers than workers seeking jobs. In place of the workers, small groups of non-Latino citizens hold aloft signs that say Respect Immigrant Labor. In the evening, several hundred immigrants attend a rally on the Green, with many demonstrators wrapping themselves in American flags and waving signs. One reads, Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote.

Contributing writer Michael Aaron Rockland is a professor of American Studies at Rutgers University.

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  1. Meredith Snook

    Oh please. I have had massive renovations done on my home by US citizens, as a born and raised Morris township resident I cannot begin to tell you how revolting itis to constant be sexually harassed in Spanish- particularly at the “mall” on a Morris.

    All my contractors are Morristown born and raised, I like to support the local residents who pay small fortunes in taxes as I do.

    That’s not to say I don’t support the frustrations immigrants go through, as a granddaughter of immigrants, but come on. Let’s permit them with legal documents to allow them to pay taxes, get licenses, health care and valid drivers licenses,

  2. Meredith Snook

    Not to mention- since you didn’t, that Marty Epstein is a Morristown High graduate who is one of a bunch of graduates from his class to open his own company and succeed. There we at least 10 large entrepreneurs from that class with extremely successful businesses. And none of them take advantage of immigrants on Morris Avenue for day labor. It’s illegal to pay them under the table and to even suggest that business men and women from Morristown would take advantage of people like that is not only negligent, it is dishonest.