Hofstra Horizons Research

Conflicting Dreams: Immigrant Workers and Suburban Exclusion

Gregory Maney
Associate Professor, Department of Sociology

Day laborers working on a roof without safety equipment. Photo by Carlos Canales.

Firmly believing that a university, and above all its faculty, should be a part of the community that surrounds it, I moved to Hempstead. Coming from Woodside, Queens, where everything I needed was in walking distance, my new neighbors viewed me with a tinge of suspicion, as my driveway was empty for three months. Finally buying a car and completing my first rite of suburban passage allowed me to venture a bit further for our shopping needs. Like many of you, my local supermarket is a Stop & Shop with a Home Depot next door. Often when driving through the parking lot, I see a group of about 50 Latinos standing in front of the Home Depot. As a sociologist who studies collective behavior, when I see a large group of people gathered, it makes me curious. So I started talking to the men and found out that they are jornaleros, or day laborers. Taking place in public spaces, day labor markets bring together contractors looking for low- to semi-skilled manual labor for small contracts, mostly lasting only a day, with workers willing to provide this type of flexible labor. Day laborers often have traveled considerable distances to work in the United States. The more I found out about the treatment of day laborers, the more concerned I became.

Violent Backlash

Over the last six years, tensions on Long Island have steadily mounted as some residents (primarily European Americans) have sought to forcibly exclude day laborers from their municipalities. In September 2000, two day laborers in Farmingville were taken by two men posing as contractors to an isolated warehouse where they were attacked with a knife and a shovel. A construction contractor threatened day laborers with a shotgun when they protested his refusal to pay them their earned wages. Early in the morning after July 4, 2003, a Mexican family’s home was firebombed by local teenagers. In July 2004, a man promising employment robbed day laborers at gunpoint.

While the eruption of hate crimes in Farmingville has made national headlines, other Long Island communities have also experienced conflict related to day labor markets. In both Centereach and Ronkonkoma, two employers were arrested for threatening violence against immigrant workers demanding payment for services rendered. In Farmingdale, a staff member of a formal day labor temp agency found bullet casings on the front doorstep soon after opening. Conflicts arising over day labor sites can have a negative impact upon the Latino population as a whole, as well as other minority groups frequently targeted for hate crimes. In Farmingville, a Mexican American family was threatened while holding a religious service at their home. More recently, two interracial families in Lake Grove had burning crosses placed on their lawns. As I looked into it more, what initially struck me as local disputes took on societal and global dimensions. Local controversies over day labor markets have fueled the debate over immigration policies at the federal level. Yet day labor markets are themselves products of changes in the global economy that result in a large supply of impoverished and politically terrorized workers from other societies seeking opportunities in the United States.1

… what initially struck me as local disputes took on societal and global dimensions.

Keys to Transforming Ethnic Conflict

Having researched ethnic group relations in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, I thought I might have some insights into the sources of the conflict over day labor markets as well as paths toward improving community relations. Research consistently indicates that those living in communities characterized by equitable, inclusive and cooperative inter-group relations are more productive and fulfilled than those living in communities characterized by social inequalities, exclusion and group conflict. 2 In particular, government protection of human rights provides the best conditions possible for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In order to be successful in promoting harmonious interaction among different social groups using the same public spaces, government policies must transform the underlying causes of ethnic conflict. To be successful, a policy response must signal acceptance of minority groups stigmatized in dominant political discourses, balance group power relations, and create a greater sense of certainty. Of the policy responses to day labor markets available to local governments, this conceptual framework, along with a growing body of empirical research, 3 suggests that establishing official hiring sites that legally recognize and regulate day labor markets will have the most positive social consequences, while trying to shut down day labor markets and remove day laborers from communities will have the most negative consequences.

The idea that a government can effectively respond to a global process that swoops down upon rural plains and transplants millions of people from one country to another may appear unrealistic. Yet it is precisely the scope and magnitude of the human drama that warrants a careful examination of what federal, state, county and local legislators across the United States can do and should do to in response to growing day labor markets and other manifestations of economic globalization. The following questions must be answered: Do efforts to eliminate day labor markets and exclude immigrants from communities negatively impact human rights and community relations? Do officially recognized hiring sites administered by nonprofit organizations protect the rights of workers while improving community relations?

The Long Island Day Labor Survey

To help answer these important questions, the Sociological Initiatives Foundation provided a grant to collaborate with the Workplace Project, an immigrant advocacy organization based in Hempstead, to conduct the most comprehensive human rights survey of day laborers ever administered on Long Island. After extensive, rigorous training, volunteers and staff from the Workplace Project surveyed 146 workers selected at random at major day labor sites in eight municipalities on Long Island (Farmingdale, Farmingville, Franklin Square, Freeport, Glen Cove, Huntington Station, Roslyn Heights and Westbury). Of these eight municipalities, three (Freeport, Glen Cove and Huntington Station) have official hiring sites, allowing for a meaningful assessment of the impact of a policy response often proposed by immigrant rights advocates. The findings of the survey make it clear that immigrant workers on Long Island face severe abuses – abuses whose occurrences place our government in violation of its international legal obligation to protect the human rights of all those living within our borders, regardless of citizenship. Our findings show:

  • Almost one-quarter of day laborers surveyed reported being physically assaulted while looking for work or while on the job. This is 109 times the rate of aggravated assault for the northeast region of the United States. Contractors were the most frequent offenders, followed by strangers. One respondent reported being whipped by a contractor for not working fast enough. Several respondents noted having objects such as bottles, eggs and garbage thrown at them by strangers passing by in cars.
  • Immigrant workers on Long Island are also frequently injured on the job as a result of reckless endangerment of their health and safety by contractors. More than one-quarter of respondents reported being injured on the job. This rate is 5.45 times higher than the New York state rate of non-fatal occupational injuries and illnesses in the construction industry. Several types of reckless endangerment were reported, including using sharp tools without gloves; using jackhammers without eye or ear protection; removing insulation without ventilation masks; and working near walls that are about to collapse.
  • Many contractors take advantage of the vulnerable status of immigrant workers to make more money. Almost half of the respondents reported one or more instances of wage theft (i.e., where they were not paid for work they completed).

Local Government Responses Matter

While recognizing the severity of the human rights abuses occurring, it’s also important to note that not all Long Island residents and government officials are hostile to immigrant workers. Abuses varied across municipalities. These variations reflected different local and county-level government policy responses to day labor markets.

On the one hand, multivariate regression analyses controlling for competing explanations (not shown here)4 reveal that threats, fines, and arrests of day laborers and contractors by law enforcement officials in certain municipalities were significantly related to a wide range of human rights abuses reported, such as physical assaults by contractors; robberies of day laborers; ethnic slurs by police, strangers and merchants; injuries on the job; and wage theft. The reasons for this relationship are that these policies stigmatize day laborers, disempower them, and heighten levels of uncertainty within the community. Mass arrests and wholesale evictions of day laborers contribute to hate crimes. They signal to residents that immigrant workers are a population without rights and without value. Marginalized minorities such as day laborers who do not trust the police will be unlikely to report abuses committed against them. Others in the community take advantage of this situation, knowing that there will be few if any negative consequences for abusing day laborers. In the process, the balance of power is further skewed in the direction of the more powerful ethnic group (i.e., European Americans). Conflicts arising from abuses of day laborers heighten inter-group fears and mistrust.

In contrast, day laborers surveyed at the three officially recognized, funded and formally managed hiring sites were significantly less likely to report a wide range of human rights abuses, including physical assaults by strangers; threats by contractors; ethnic slurs by contractors, strangers and merchants; and health and safety violations such as using sharp tools with gloves and working on roofs without harnessing equipment. Analysis of the survey data strongly suggests that official hiring sites significantly reduce hate crimes and other forms of abuses against day laborers. The reasons for this relationship are that these policies signal authorities’ acceptance of day laborers, promote their empowerment, and create a greater degree of certainty within the community. By helping day laborers organize and become accepted and trusted members of communities, official hiring sites assist immigrant workers in self-actualization, benefiting both the local community and the global village as a whole.

Demonstrating the connection between the protection of human rights and community relations, respondents reporting higher levels of repression were also significantly more likely to report that relations had worsened with all other segments of the community. Repression was also negatively related to the perception of just treatment by all other segments of the community. The results are consistent with our assertion that local government efforts to shut down day labor markets worsen community relations as growing human rights violations trigger escalating inter-group conflict.

… By helping day laborers organize and become accepted and trusted members of communities, official hiring sites assist immigrant workers in self-actualization, benefiting both the local community and the global village as a whole.

In contrast, respondents surveyed at official hiring sites were significantly more likely to rate treatment by contractors as both improving and just, compared to respondents at unofficial sites. In response to open-ended questions, workers surveyed at official sites more frequently related incidents where contractors paid them more than promised, complemented them on their job performances, and provided training on how to use equipment properly. In the words of one respondent, “I learned new things and made a new friend.” Official sites also ameliorated relations with other residents of the community. Respondents at official sites were significantly less likely to report unjust treatment by strangers than respondents surveyed at unofficial hiring sites. Whereas repression encourages residents to intimidate immigrant workers into leaving the community, the establishment of official hiring sites discourages these behaviors. In response to an open-ended question, workers surveyed at official sites frequently spoke of strangers providing food, money, clothes and job leads.

Multilevel Policy Solutions

Based upon these findings, the Workplace Project and I recommend the following policies:

  • First, on the local and county levels, end government harassment of immigrant workers and establish official hiring sites that give day laborers the opportunity to organize themselves.
  • Second, on the state and federal levels, vigorously enforce labor laws, health and safety regulations, and hate crimes laws. By protecting all workers’ rights, we ensure that no worker loses her or his job, or worse, due to unfair and unethical employer practices.
  • Third, on the national level, if we don’t want workers here illegally, make legal immigration accessible and affordable. In the process, more workers will be able to pay income taxes in addition to the sales taxes that they already pay.
  • Finally, on the international level, end foreign policies such as supporting austerity, structural adjustment, and arms dealing, which create conditions of poverty and political repression that, in turn, increase the number of refugees coming to the United States.

All of us must realize fully that local policies have international implications and that international policies have local implications.

How Universities Make a Difference

In the years to come, I hope to continue to work with my colleagues at Hofstra to find the resources necessary to systematically do the following: (1) partner with community-based organizations like the Workplace Project to produce policy-relevant research on human rights; (2) provide community forums and discussion groups that raise awareness of social injustices, network residents, and offer opportunities to rework conflicting identities; and (3) offer mediation services to assist participants in conflict to identify solutions that meet multiple interests. By helping to build stronger surrounding communities, universities ensure that successive generations of residents see the relevance of higher education to their lives and acquire the resources needed to participate.


1 See Maney, G.M., Campisi, E., Marin Molina, N., & Canales, C. (2006). Protecting Human Rights in a Global Economy: The Impact of Government Responses to Day Labor Markets. Hempstead, NY: Center for the Study of Labor and Democracy. To download a copy, visit click here.

2 See Granovetter, M. (1985). Economic action and social structure: The problem of embeddedness, American Journal of Sociology, 91:481-510. Coleman, J.S. (1988). Social capital in the creation of human capital, American Journal of Sociology, 94:S95-S120. Larson, R.W. (2000). Toward a psychology of positive youth development, American Psychologist, 55:170-83. Seligman, M. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology, American Psychologist, 55:5-14. Putnam, R.D. (2001). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

3 See Fine, J. (2006). Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Valenzuela, Jr., A., Theodore, N., Meléndez, E., & Gonzalez, A.L. (2006). On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States. Los Angeles: UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty.

4 See Maney, G., Valenzuela, A., Theodore, N., Meléndez, E. & Campisi, E. (2007). To repress or manage: Social consequences of contrasting policy responses to day labor markets on Long Island. To be presented at the Section on Community and Urban Sociology Session “Regulating Public Space” during the American Sociological Association National Conference, August 11, New York, NY.

Day laborers working on a roof without safety equipment. Photo by Carlos Canales.

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