Naked City

Labor Film Strikes a Chord

A diverse group of 50 people showed up at Martin Junior High School last Saturday morning to watch Los Trabajadores, local filmmaker Heather Courtney's documentary on Austin's immigrant day labor community. Co-sponsored by East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Association, the Arts Commission, and the Texas Council for the Humanities, the screening attracted immigrant workers, social service agency reps, cops, kids, and artists, as well as Council members Raul Alvarez and Will Wynn.

According to East Cesar Chavez NA Chair Joseph Martinez, his community has a growing, "unofficial" day-labor site that makes showing Los Trabajadores all the more important. Courtney's film, which focuses on the lives of two immigrant laborers, also chronicles the controversy that ensued when City Council proposed moving a day-labor site from downtown to a residential neighborhood (now known as First Workers Corporation, or the Day Labor Center). Council approved the plan, which angered some neighbors and worried others who presumed negative things about the workers. "The issue is far larger than a day-labor site," Martinez said.

So far, said First Workers Site Supervisor Scott Lyles, the center is placing about 70% of workers -- the highest rate nationally. "More workers come [to the site] than we had expected," he said, although rains in August, the Sept. 11 attacks, and the economic downturn have affected construction. Nevertheless, Alvarez, who has served as a member of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team, announced the city is considering an additional site, closer to downtown.

After the screening, more than half the audience stuck around for a "discussion" (the group never quite made it past the introductions) on the current status of immigrant workers in Austin. The Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have impacted immigration laws, said Josefina Castillo of the American Friends Service Committee . Those changes could negatively affect the situations of border-crossers, she warned. "Social service providers don't have as many people coming out," Castillo added. "There's fear and mistrust."

One man said he arrived in Austin last week after leaving Mexico with just $15 in his pocket. On his way through Laredo, an INS agent threatened to deport him. "I told him, 'You kick me back today, I'll be back tomorrow,'" he said. "Thank God, here I am."

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