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Community Organizer Fights for Immigrants
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Community Organizer Fights for Immigrants

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Community Organizer Fights for Immigrants

Community Organizer Fights for Immigrants
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This is the second of a three-part report.

Reza i

Salvador Reza, a U.S. Air Force veteran, has spent years organizing day laborers and small-business owners. For years he has run the only sanctioned day labor center in Phoenix. AT Willet for NPR hide caption

toggle caption AT Willet for NPR
Reza

Salvador Reza, a U.S. Air Force veteran, has spent years organizing day laborers and small-business owners. For years he has run the only sanctioned day labor center in Phoenix.

AT Willet for NPR
Salvador Reza on how illegal immigrants have been dehumanized
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Day Laborers i

The day labor center keeps track of where the workers are going using a sheet that laborers sign. AT Willet for NPR hide caption

toggle caption AT Willet for NPR
Day Laborers

The day labor center keeps track of where the workers are going using a sheet that laborers sign.

AT Willet for NPR
Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce i

Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce is one of Reza's chief critics. AT Willet for NPR hide caption

toggle caption AT Willet for NPR
Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce

Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce is one of Reza's chief critics.

AT Willet for NPR
Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce criticizes Reza
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Protestors i

Retired Phoenix businessman Alan Becker spends 30 hours a week protesting the migrant worker pick-up center where Reza works. Some of his suporters were Mexican-Americans who do not like the presence of the work center in their neighborhood. AT Willet for NPR hide caption

toggle caption AT Willet for NPR
Protestors

Retired Phoenix businessman Alan Becker spends 30 hours a week protesting the migrant worker pick-up center where Reza works. Some of his suporters were Mexican-Americans who do not like the presence of the work center in their neighborhood.

AT Willet for NPR

There doesn't seem to be much middle ground when it comes to opinions on Salvador Reza, a community organizer in Phoenix who believes that all immigrants who want to work should be welcomed with full labor rights.

Reza has been called a defender of the people — and also a criminal traitor.

One critic, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio recently announced a crime-suppression operation. Reza had heard about the operation hours before it was publicly unveiled, and so Reza walked through the neighborhood warning the day laborers, known as jornaleros.

"I came to tell the jornaleros to scram, to get out before they get arrested," Reza says.

Reza is their advocate. Former Arizona legislator Alfredo Gutierrez even compares Reza to the legendary labor organizer Cesar Chavez.

"He is one authentic voice who can move, mobilize our community," Gutierrez says.

Reza has gained local notice by mobilizing regular demonstrations against Arpaio's continuing crackdown on illegal immigrants.

Reza's Roots

A stocky man with a long gray moustache and hair in a ponytail, Reza gets up early in the morning to open the chain-link gates of the Macehualli Day Labor Center in north Phoenix. A group of mostly men come in and sit at shaded tables until prospective employers arrive. Reza then helps match the job to the worker — landscaper, housecleaner, construction worker. It doesn't matter to him if the workers are in the country illegally.

"To me, the people that everyone calls illegal aliens are my brothers, they're my sisters, they're my cousins," Reza says.

Reza came to the U.S. from Mexico, crossing illegally as a child with his parents in 1961.

"I still saw signs that said no dogs or Mexicans allowed in restaurants," Reza says. "Today they're saying no illegal aliens allowed, but dogs permitted."

He joined the Air Force and became a U.S. citizen. Reza settled in Phoenix, where he still teaches English to immigrants. Organizing day laborers became a full-time cause about five years ago, when he helped convince the Phoenix City Council to build the center to get workers off nearby streets. Even then, the stance was controversial.

Protests and Detractors

Now it's no longer safe for politicians to even suggest they support illegal immigrants.

Under pressure, the city halted plans to build more day-labor centers. Now a group of anti-immigrant protesters sits in lawn chairs just outside the existing center holding signs. They try to stop potential employers from driving in to hire workers.

Verbal clashes between Reza and the protesters are not unusual. Protestor Buffalo Rick Galleener, a disabled military veteran, accuses Reza, a fellow vet, of encouraging illegal activity.

"He took an oath to defend this country from enemies foreign and domestic. Well, guess what? This is a domestic enemy," Galleener says.

Reza says immigrants make the country stronger — even illegal immigrants. He says they represent traditional values more than the protesters do.

"These guys get up at five in the morning, work until seven or eight at night for $50 to $60 a day," Reza says.

Reza supports open borders. Letting legitimate workers come and go with supply and demand. He doesn't understand why it's not part of the debate over immigration or free trade. But these days that position is political poison —and it scares the daylights out of others in Arizona.

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