On a chilly Saturday morning in January, some 100 Minutemen, veterans and activists, many of them brandishing American flags, gather on a sidewalk in front of a Home Depot store in Burbank, Calif. As police in riot gear stand on alert, they shout into bullhorns and wave posters and banners accusing Home Depot of promoting illegal immigration because it allows day laborers to congregate outside its walls.

“Illegal immigration lowers wages and steals U.S. jobs,” declares one poster. “Americans made America great,” reads a banner, adding a rebuke: “Mexicans made Mexico great  to leave.”

Across the street, another throng of protesters — equal in size and passion — counters with its own taunts and jeers. “Go back to Europe,” they cry. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, this racist scum has got to go.”

Nearby, at a day-labor worker center built by the local city council to keep laborers from soliciting work from the streets, most of the workers have left for fear of being arrested or because, seeing the protests, prospective employers stayed away.

Cesar, a Guatemalan who admits he’s been living without papers in Los Angeles for the past six years, has stayed to watch the flag-wavers and the dancers fling insults at each other. “Why don’t they want us here?” he asks. “They say they are offended by our presence, but we are offended, too — by their hate.”

Similar collisions are taking place in big cities and small towns all over the country. The face-off in Burbank, in fact, is only one of many confrontations in a controversy that has taken on what the Salt Lake Tribune recently described as “a frenzy bordering on hysteria.”

In December 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill aimed partly at building a fence along a third of the nation’s 2,000-mile border with Mexico, where the United States Border Patrol manages to catch only one-fourth of all the people who cross over. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, some 700,000 unauthorized immigrants enter the country every year. Policy-makers and legislators wrestling with the issue have heard volleys of charges, counter-charges and dueling statistics, but, until recently, very little real data on day labor in the nation.

Two days after the confrontation in Burbank, the first national analysis of immigrant day laborers, or jornaleros, was released to widespread media attention. Titled “On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States,” it is based on data gathered from 20 states and the District of Columbia.

Snapshot of an underclass

In the two-year study, a team of researchers at UCLA, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the New School University in New York City surveyed 2,660 day laborers at 264 hiring sites nationwide. Applying statistical methods pioneered by researchers in quantifying another elusive group — America’s homeless — the study offers a snapshot of an underclass that often suffers injuries at work, is frequently cheated of pay and is widely abused.

On a typical day, the study found, some 117,600 jornaleros — three-and-a-half times the population of Beverly Hills — are out working or hunting for jobs. Three-fourths of them are undocumented and only a small percentage have applied for residency. Most work in the home construction industry, relying solely on day labor to make ends meet. They congregate outside home-improvement stores, gas stations, public parks, empty parking lots, even churches.

Some seek work through day-labor worker centers run by community organizations. They earn an average of $10 an hour, but because work is unsteady, not many make more than $15,000 a year doing jobs widely regarded as dirty, dangerous or simply back-breaking: demolition, excavation, building drywalls and stone fences, hauling goods, painting, picking grapes.

Crossing the line

Jornaleros take great personal and financial risks to enter the United States. Patrolling along the U.S.-Mexico border has intensified greatly in recent years, forcing coyotes, or human-traffickers, to guide migrants along ever more remote and dangerous routes. The Border Patrol estimates that a typical migrant pays coyotes anywhere from $150 to $3,500 as a fee, but many jornaleros pay a lot more.

Avelina, a 30-year-old Guatemalan, and her 27-year-old husband, Nerso, each paid coyotes 37,000 quetzals, about $4,900, to slip across the border last November. The funds were borrowed from a money lender back home. The couple now live in a small rented apartment in the Los Angeles suburb of San Marino with Avelina’s sister, who has been working as an undocumented housemaid since emigrating a year ago.

On most mornings, the couple rides a bus to a day-labor center in the city of Glendale. Located across the street from the local Home Depot store, the center serves scores of laborers daily by distributing work through a lottery system and providing them with toilet facilities, food, television and recreational games.

Not many women frequent the Glendale center, and Avelina hasn’t had much luck finding work — she gets hired to clean houses only about once a week. Her husband hasn’t fared much better — he’s been without work for as long as 15 days. But the couple dare not return home because, as Avelina puts it, “we have to repay the loan — even if it takes five years.”

It’s going to be a tough haul for them. According to the study, only 1 in 4 laborers continues to work in this market for more than three years — and the longer they do so, the higher the chances they will suffer some sort of abuse from employers, merchants, security guards or police.

Following the trail

Abel Valenzuela became academically interested in the lives of immigrants as a doctoral student at MIT in the early 1990s. By 1996, he was doing interviews with jornaleros at 87 hiring sites in Los Angeles — research that culminated three years later in the first findings about day laborers in the metropolis.

Valenzuela concedes that his study won’t stop the hullabaloo over the highly charged issue of securing the border. In fact, he says, “there are some concerns among folks in the day-labor community that our estimate of their numbers is smaller than what’s out there.” Another concern, adds Valenzuela, is the fallout, if any, of releasing a figure about undocumented workers, which places them in an even more vulnerable position.

Back at the worker center near the Home Depot in Burbank, meanwhile, they’re still talking — and waiting for work.