05/17/2012 07:24 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2012

Going Face-to-Face With Day Laborers

Pablo Alvarado came to the United States from El Salvador in the 1990s and worked for five years as an undocumented laborer. Today he works for the National Day Laborer Organization Network (NDLON) and helps to fight for the rights and dignity of day laborers. I learned of his story when the Taproot Foundation partnered with Pablo and NDLON and recently sat down to capture his inspiring story.

The immigration debate in this country has become really ugly in recent years.

Yes. Day laborers have become the public face of immigration. They have been demonized. Many people have described the day laborers as unwanted people and criminals. People who are murdering and harassing women. I think we are capable of having a debate in which people are not dehumanized in the process.

You came to this country in the 1990s as an undocumented worker yourself.

For about five years I was undocumented and did all the jobs day laborers do.

How did you transform into an advocate for day laborers?

I was volunteering to teach people how to write in Spanish. If people don't have basic reading and writing skills in their native language, they have a difficult time learning a second language. So day laborers would bring me their stories, which they wanted to write down. The stories were like -- last week I was hired by an employer who didn't pay me after three days of hard work or people were arrested or angry residents came out with guns. I not only learned about other workers but reflected on my own story.

With such strongly held negative views in the community, how do you turn this issue around?

Once residents speak directly to day laborers, their attitude completely changes. They're looking at that person face-to-face, and you can't deny someone's humanity in that process. And I can tell you that I have seen police officers, after going after day laborers for many years, totally change their attitude once they begin having a different relationship with day laborers.

But police aren't the only issue, are they?

When I began talking to people I understood the connections between local businesses, cops and elected officials. We now teach day laborers how to identify these actors in their communities and how to work with them as potential allies. We find ways to make them friends. Whenever there is a community clean-up, 50 day laborers will show up. Or day laborers have gone to fix homes of elderly citizens.

That, in a sense, is pro bono work. Donating their professional skills. How can business professionals use their skills to help day laborers and this issue?

The reality is that the work centers across the country are being run by people like me -- community organizers and activists. We don't know how to do marketing. When the economic downturn began, the number of jobs at day laborer stations dropped. The centers need help to get their message out in a professional and consistent way. When marketing and design professionals got involved, the jobs started to pick up. It's really helping. It also started to change the culture of the work centers.

Marketing changed the culture of the centers?

We learned that if you want to promote one of the 70 day laborer centers, you had to include the day laborers. It was something we were doing but not in that way. We have to change the culture in those centers so that day laborers can take matters into their own hands. The entire programmatic aspect of our work has changed -- there is an entire workforce development program within the network now.

Are there other ways business professionals can help support this work?

Elected officials pay a lot of attention to the business community and professionals. We need them to reach out to champion policies that protect workers. For instance, so many places have protections against wage theft. One in every two day laborers has been cheated of his or her wages.

Professionals can also help with workforce development. Helping community organizations develop training curricula around issues ranging from health care to immigration to soft skill development. We also have professionals come in and teach people how to interview.