By TINA IRGANG
SILVER SPRING, Md. (Sept. 11, 2009)—Bladensburg resident William Reyes was laid off nine months ago after working in landscaping for nine years, and now relies on day labor for his income.
"My wife and I were both laid off last December because of the economic depression," Reyes said through a translator. "I have turned to CASA de Maryland to help me out. They are able to help me find jobs here and there."
Takoma Park-based CASA de Maryland is one of 41 members of NDLON, the National Day Labor Organizing Network. NDLON's fifth annual conference, which began Thursday, drew Reyes and hundreds of other day laborers and labor organizers to the state this week.
NDLON spokeswoman Sarahi Uribe said the conference is designed to create a sense of unity and empowerment among day laborers. But most importantly, Uribe said, is that sense of empowerment will help delegates make their case for immigration reform when they visit with legislators on Capitol Hill this week.
"They're here to show that they're organized and that they have a voice," Uribe said.
Day laborers are among those most affected by the current economic climate, she said.
"Many of them work in the construction industry, and as we know that's been hit hard by the recession. When times were better, many of them were literally building this country."
Orlando Barahona, 53, is one of many day laborers who have been working short-term construction jobs for years. The Gaithersburg resident said he often has problems finding work and getting paid for the work he does get.
Day labor, particularly in construction, is not only uncertain, but dangerous. According to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than a third of all 2008 workplace deaths in Maryland occurred in construction.
Conferees devoted a minute of silence for day laborers killed on the job to open their event.
In a special question-and-answer session after the remembrance, delegates expressed frustration with the slow pace of immigration reform, and voiced concerns about raids in their homes and racial profiling.
One participant said through a translator: "Why is there so much hatred? We don't come here to rob anyone, to break labor laws, or to disturb the peace."
Pablo Alvarado, NDLON's executive director, urged delegates to attend planned legislative visits on Capitol Hill Thursday.
"Establish a relationship with your member of Congress now," Alvarado said through a translator, "so your organization can work with them in the future."
Ted Green of the Laborers' International Union of North America delivered the morning's keynote speech, stressing the importance of cooperation between day laborers and other workers. While the economy is in disarray, he said, "our alliance is not."
"This unemployment will not do what it has done in the past. It will not drive us apart," Green said to applause.
Conference events will continue through Sunday, and will include a news conference on Capitol Hill and a vigil at the White House.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.