Alonso Aguirre, his face swollen from recent surgery, promises he'll tell me how gangbangers recently broke his jaw in two places with a baseball bat. But first he asks a favor.
"Can you talk to my wife and tell her why you're here?" asks Aguirre, whose name I've altered to protect his identity from immigration officials. "She doesn't believe me. She thinks I'm not working because I'm messing around."
In a flophouse room at Mission and Sixth streets that San Francisco's health department has temporarily obtained for him in lieu of a hospital bed, Aguirre, 37, uses a discount phone card to call Tapachula, a small city on Mexico's border with Guatemala, where his wife and three daughters live.
During most of 2007, Aguirre used money from temporary house-painting jobs to pay off $8,000 he owed to a "coyote" who helped smuggle him into the U.S. He'd expected to begin sending money home to his family when he was attacked last month near 30th and Mission streets by a group of three "cholos," Aguirre says, using the Mexican Spanish term for gangbangers.
Aguirre's wife was skeptical when he told her he'd stopped working because he was injured. "There's a man who's here with me I want you to talk to," he tells her in his native Spanish. "I want you to talk to him so you know that things really are as hard as I say."
I take the phone and say that Aguirre is telling the truth. I'd just come from Laguna Honda Hospital, where I visited 55-year-old Genaro Hernandez, who was waiting for surgeons to reattach a piece of his skull. I'd spoken with another day laborer, who had stitches from a mugger-induced wound running across his scalp. I interviewed men at the corner of Mission and Cesar Chavez streets about a fellow worker who was shot in the foot. In mid-December, Jose Alberto Chel Camara and Jaiver Nah Carballo were gunned down while on their way to buy food.
"Can you see?" Aguirre says to his wife when he gets back on the phone. "It's happening to everyone."
Aguirre's wife can be excused for being unaware of the current epidemic of violence against San Francisco day laborers. That's because, while criminals are bludgeoning and shooting workers who line up along Cesar Chavez to hail building contractors who might give them work, neither the police nor any other government agency or nonprofit seems motivated to see the crimes reported, and the assailants tracked down and jailed.
While the safety of migrant day laborers may seem far removed from the concerns of middle-class San Franciscans, the rest of us actually do have a vested interest in seeing justice done to the various criminals who split Aguirre's jaw, shattered Hernandez' skull, and shot Camara and Carballo to death.
In 2007, this city suffered more murders than we'd seen in a decade. This year, gang members and thugs can be expected to continue beating and killing people, some of whom might not belong to marginalized groups such as immigrant workers.
If sympathy for people such as Aguirre isn't sufficient for San Francisco to try to stop the attacks, perhaps we should act out of self-interest.
Many San Franciscans have seen the dozens of Mexican and Central American men who daily line the streets near Cesar Chavez, hailing contractors' pickup trucks in hopes of obtaining a day's work. But few seem aware of the frequent assaults against these so-called day laborers.
Many are recent illegal immigrants toiling as painters, haulers, roofers, and gardeners. They occupy the lowest and perhaps most dangerous rung of America's immigrant ladder. Some, like Aguirre, have to live on the streets or in homeless shelters, and toil to send money home to family and pay back their smugglers.
But with money comes trouble: Day laborers work mostly in cash-only construction jobs, so potential muggers can expect many of them to have money in their pockets at sundown. While many banks recognize Mexican consulate-issued ID cards that allow immigrants to open accounts, workers often don't have time to visit the bank every day, so they carry cash from job sites to grocery stores and shelters. To a ruthless criminal, day laborers are walking ATMs.
Day laborers are also attractive assault targets because they are often reluctant to contact public officials out of fear of deportation, even though San Francisco has an official policy of not cooperating with immigration agents.
The laborers also fear reprisal from their attackers, some of whom may be gang members. Last week I talked to Joel Medina, a thin 39-year-old who was seeking work on Cesar Chavez. He showed me a scar that he got cracking his head against some rebar while fleeing two men who had mugged him three times in Fremont. When police asked him to identify his attackers, Medina refused. "My life would have been worthless," he says. "If they found out I had identified them, I'd have been killed."
Accordingly, gangsters, drug dealers, and thugs have been bludgeoning, kicking, and shooting day laborers for the cash in their pockets. This crime wave has been going on for a while — a 2002 UCSF medical anthropology study described day laborers as constantly on the lookout for attack. "The threat of street violence was always present for these guys," says Nicholas Walter, who spent 8 months as a medical anthropologist interviewing the city's day laborers on the streets and in homeless shelters.
But it's a problem that nobody in a position of influence seems motivated to do anything about. "The only time you see police is when they drive by once in a while, rubbernecking," says Hernandez, who was bashed on the head with a pipe by assailants who robbed him of $85. Aguirre says he'd like to see police constantly patrolling the area. The reality, however, is that police attention is rare.
Tim Hettrich, recently appointed captain of the San Francisco Police Department's Mission Station, says as far as police know, crimes against day laborers simply aren't happening. "There's no police reports, no description of suspects, no time of day," he says. "We have nothing. The individuals, if they are getting attacked or robbed, they have to inform the police. We don't have a crystal ball. There's no strategy we can take if we don't know it's happening."
Hettrich's position is abetted by the fact that there seems to be nobody, other than the immigrants themselves, who desires more police involvement. Several workers say drug dealers sometimes loiter and sell while standing among them as a technique for avoiding police attention. The dealers' presence adds to the feeling of menace that is part of seeking day jobs on the street.
"It would great if [the police] could at least pat the dealers down once in a while," Aguirre says.
However, Renee Saucedo, the attorney and organizer behind the San Francisco Day Labor Program, told me she has little interest in increased police attention. She says cops historically have harassed migrant workers, and that the real answer is to solve problems such as poverty and homelessness.
As evidence that she believes the police aren't to be trusted, Saucedo cited two incidents in the past two years in which officers responded to street fights among laborers and then apprehended people who were trying to stop the fights. She also told of an occurrence where she says police hit a man's head on the ground while making a drug bust on Cesar Chavez. "I don't think more police presence would be the solution," she says.
Since 1985, San Francisco has been a sanctuary city, where local government officials provide services to anyone, regardless of immigration status. Four years ago the city officially recognized ID cards issued by the Mexican consulate; banks followed suit. Mexico's foreign minister said in 2002 that these measures put San Francisco at the vanguard of the drive for immigrant rights. But our city doesn't deserve this distinction if we fail to protect immigrants' right not to be violently attacked.
The blocks bordered by 26th and Cesar Chavez streets and Potrero Avenue and Mission Street should become the site of an aggressive community policing effort, alongside an attempt to provide affordable housing for laborers. This will require tossing aside politics: Hettrich should launch his tenure by sitting down with Saucedo and trying to clear the air of suspicion between her program and the police. The additional officers the mayor is supposedly putting on the streets should walk and drive newly formed beats among the day laborers. And a portion of the $2 billion or so the city spends combating homelessness should go toward helping laborers move off the dangerous streets.
If human decency doesn't move us, we might consider this: Stopping these criminals will make San Francisco streets safer for the rest of us, too.