Shortchanged

Houston-based immigrants who flock to New Orleans can get all the jobs they want. Getting paid is a lot harder.


"We are all brothers here. There's no difference between any of us. It's not important where you're from. The more we help each other, the more we all can achieve."

Juan Alvarez is standing before a dozen laborers at Lee Circle, telling them, in Spanish, that they can report contractors who aren't paying; they can receive emergency medical care; and they can organize and fight for better conditions.

That fridge over Juan Ramon Aguillar's shoulder 
doesn't work…
Daniel Kramer
That fridge over Juan Ramon Aguillar's shoulder doesn't work…
…and all power comes from outside sources.
Daniel Kramer
…and all power comes from outside sources.

The longer he speaks, the more workers gather together, some chiming in and others joking around. They share stories, and not all of their experiences are bad. Some say they've made much more than they would have in Montana, California, Texas or wherever they came from. Others plan to stay only long enough to get what they're owed.

Alvarez is in town for just 24 hours. Yesterday he had to take a laborer with a broken leg to Ben Taub General Hospital in Houston, and tomorrow he's going back to speak at Spanish-language churches about a bill passed last December by the U.S. House, a bill with a provision criminalizing anyone who "assists, encourages, directs, or induces a person [who is here illegally] to reside in or remain in the United States." Although unlikely to make it past the Senate, this provision would pretty much make his entire life illegal.

But today he's right in his element, energizing laborers and gathering information. He knows he'll receive dozens of calls over the following weeks, calls to a cell phone already past its minute limit from guys he's not even sure he can help, but he keeps going, talking about a strike he's planning.

All immigrant workers should stand down for one day, he says, and stand up and be counted.

Alvarez meets Aguillar, and Juan the laborer tells Juan the activist about his family back home, his sick mother, his tough times in New Orleans, his missing $1,200. The activist takes down the laborer's information and promises to follow up with the contractor, although he admits it'll be tough to shame someone from 300 miles away.

When contacted the next week by the Houston Press, the contractor isn't too keen on being singled out, but he does confirm Aguillar's employment.

He says Aguillar was a shoddy worker who wanted to be paid every Friday, who kept saying, "My mother is about to die. I need to send money."

The contractor admits he's having trouble paying his workers but says it's not his responsibility; people above him still need to pony up more than $25,000. But he and Aguillar are all squared away, he says, adding that the laborer did a sloppy job finishing some drywall.

When it comes down to it, he figures it's Aguillar who owes him money.

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