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Some Jobless Seeking Day-Labor

Growing ranks of U.S. citizens are heading to street corners and home improvement store parking lots to find day-labor work usually done by illegal immigrants.

The trend is most pronounced in regions where hot construction markets have collapsed, says Abel Valenzuela Jr., a professor of urban planning at the University of California-Los Angeles.

"You had many, many unemployed construction workers who found themselves without any permanent or stable work," he says. "Some of them have gone on to seek employment by standing on street corners alongside immigrant workers."

Day laborers gather at high-traffic spots such as busy intersections and home improvement stores, looking for pick-up work such as painting, laying bricks or landscaping. Contractors and homeowners describe the jobs and negotiate pay on the spot.

Valenzuela estimates the proportion of U.S.-born day laborers has at least doubled since he released a report in 2006, when his research showed they made up 7% of the day-labor workforce. At that time, Valenzuela estimated 117,600 people were looking for or doing day-labor jobs on any given day. Illegal immigrants were 75% of the day-labor workforce; the rest were legal immigrants.

"It's becoming more ethnically diverse. On the corners, I've seen white people, I've seen African Americans and a lot of Mexican Americans," says Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. "When unemployment benefits run out, I expect to see more."

Among the communities seeing an increase in U.S.-citizen day laborers:

Tucson. Staff members at Southside Presbyterian Church, which runs a center where workers can connect with people offering work, have been seeing more U.S.-born people looking for jobs in 2008, says church elder Josefina Ahumada."We would say, 'Hi, how are you?' and we would learn that this is somebody who just got laid off."

Arlington, Va. Construction workers recently laid off are showing up at the day-labor hiring site run by the Shirlington Employment and Education Center, says executive director Andres Tobar: "We're seeing people who hadn't come to our center before who are legally here and U.S. citizens, and who are skilled workers and can't find work."

Los Angeles. Citizens are replacing immigrant day laborers who had trouble finding work and returned to their home countries, says Antonio Bernabe, senior organizer of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

"These are people who used to have permanent positions," he says. "It's happening everywhere."

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