Without legal authority to work in the United States, Luis’ options are limited.

"I've looked for work, and usually they don't hire you unless you have a work permit," he said.

As such, the Peruvian immigrant has to scramble to make ends meet and, like many others, found himself outside Home Depot in West Valley City one recent weekday morning, hoping to get short-term work as a day laborer. "A permit can take a year. The only solution is to come here," said Luis, who would only provide his first name.

It can be be tiresome, sometimes fruitless, sometimes demeaning, as they describe it. But immigrants like Luis — lacking proper documentation to work legally in the country — regularly gather outside a handful of locations like the West Valley City Home Depot, hoping to get selected for construction or yardwork or other odd jobs. Though their presence, for some, may be a nuisance, eyesore or point of contention as debate over illegal immigration heats up, they maintain they mean no ill will and that they provide a vital service.

Luis Valentan, an organizer with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (not to be confused with Luis the Peruvian worker), said the day laborers — typically undocumented immigrants — are a vital element of the workforce. They work for contractors and subcontractors as well as homeowners looking for help with landscaping and home improvement projects.

Luis Valentan of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, center, speaks with day laborers outside Home Depot in West Valley City on Friday. Also present were organizers from Comunidades Unidas, an immigrant advocacy group. | Tim Vandenack, KSL.com

"The majority of the immigrant workers do jobs no one else wants," said Valentan, who advocates on behalf of day laborers in Utah through his organization. If day laborers were suddenly eliminated from the workforce, he said, "The impact would be tremendously negative for America."

Reps from West Valley City declined comment and Home Depot reps offered only a succinct statement. "Like many businesses in the community, we have a nonsolicitation policy at our stores. The safety of our associates and customers is our top priority, and we prohibit people from loitering," said Home Depot spokeswoman Beth Marlowe.

The workers and their advocates, though, had plenty to say.

As if to head off potential criticism about the migratory status of day laborers, Gregorio Garzón, originally from Mexico and now living in Taylorsville, lauded the United States.

"Thanks to the United States, this great nation, we find what we can't find in Mexico and have a better future," he said. He's been in the country for about nine years and said he wanted to speak out "so the people know we're not criminals, we're workers."

Getting steady work, though, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, is increasingly difficult without proper work authorization, Garzón said, which is why he was there at Home Depot, among a sizable contingent of other job seekers. Sometimes you show up, he said, and spend the whole day outside Home Depot without getting picked for a job. "I don't want to be here. I want a stable job, but there aren't any. I'm here out of necessity," to earn money to pay rent, auto insurance and other bills, he said.

Other times, Garzón and several others said, you do the work, but either aren't paid or are shortchanged. Once he worked for a client for about two weeks, Garzón said, but never saw the payment, about $2,000. "I told him to give it to me, but he doesn't want to," he said. "I didn't call (police) because I don't want more problems."

Even if you do press nonpaying employers, though, it won't necessarily make a difference. If you threaten to call authorities, he said, "They say, 'Do whatever you want.'"

Ivan Oliveros, an immigrant from Venezuela who said he is awaiting a work permit, was fuming about a recent job that went awry. He worked several hours, he said, but the employer wouldn't pay him adequately for the time he spent on the job.

"Nine hours, nine hours — he wanted to give me $30 for nine hours," he said. "I'm going to call the police. I have my rights."

He pulled out his cellphone to show video of the confrontation with the son of the man who had hired him. "He called me trash," Oliveros said.

Valentan counseled patience, told him not to get physical with customers, even when facing unfair treatment. Contractors, Valentan also said, are typically the worst offenders. They know workers aren't likely to complain given their migratory status, he said, "so they do whatever they want to."

Valentan said he'll reach out to those who don't pay and press them to make good, sometimes with results. Representatives from West Valley City-based Comunidades Unidas, an immigrant advocacy group, were on hand outside the Home Depot, distributing Utah Labor Commission fliers in Spanish spelling out workers' rights. Defending the rights of undocumented workers, including day laborers, is a priority for the group, and Brianna Puga, a Comunidades Unidas organizer, noted that even more workers show up outside the Salt Lake City Home Depot looking for work.

Nevertheless, day laborers don't get written contracts, so their cases when they're stiffed can be hard to prove. That, said Puga, bodes against labor commission officials taking on their cases, though Comunidades Unidas still advises those with complaints to report them to the labor body.

'Go back to your country'

Whatever ripples they may cause, Valentan maintains that day laborers' presence outside businesses isn't a violation of law. They're not loitering or trespassing, as he sees it.

"They're using the space to provide a service, but also they're (Home Depot) customers," Valentan said. "They're not intimidating anybody. They're not assaulting anybody. They're not doing anything wrong."

In 2015, a federal district court judge in New York ruled in favor of day laborers, striking down a law in Oyster Bay, New York, that had prohibited them from gathering to solicit work, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of New York. The organization and others had filed a suit, charging that the local law was unconstitutional.

Men wait for work opportunities near Home Depot in West Valley City on Tuesday. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The judge determined the law violated the First Amendment, "which protects the rights of day laborers to gather in public spaces and ask for work," the ACLU said at the time. "The decision also noted that there are current public safety laws in place — such as New York state's vehicle and traffic laws — that can be used to protect motorists and pedestrians."

At any rate, their presence riles some. Rafael Najera, originally from Mexico and now living in Magna, said once he was outside the West Valley City Home Depot waiting for work when a passenger in a passing car shouted at the workers. The person positioned his arms as if he were holding a rifle, pointing at the day laborers.

"Go back to your country," the passerby shouted, according to Najera. "Go back to your country, guys."

Valentan said an area fast-food eatery refuses to serve day laborers. "That's kind of like crazy because you're discriminating against a specific group," he said.

Police sometimes show up — Najera said he was once ticketed — and Garzón said when that happens, he doesn't challenge them. "If the police come, we leave. We don't want problems. Authority is authority. We respect that," he said.

Indeed, Luis Tipan, who arrived in the United States from Ecuador just six months ago, says immigrants aren't aiming to bother others. They're focused on surviving. He left Ecuador, he said, due to lack of work opportunity in the South American country and to get away from drug traffickers, who sometimes extort money from everyday citizens.

“We don’t come to cause problems,” said Tipan, also on hand outside the Home Depot. “We come to work.”