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The Washington Post

U.S. Symbol, Latino Muscle

Many Workers Restoring Pentagon Are Immigrants, Proud of Efforts

By Mary Beth Sheridan

April 4, 2002
Copyright © 2002
The Washington Post Company. All Rights Reserved.

The sign above the Pentagon rebuilding site is an all-American "Let's Roll." But for a large number of the workers pouring concrete, ripping out asbestos and clearing debris, the cry is different.

"We go, 'Andale, ándale' -- 'Get to work!' " said Douglas Ortiz, a Salvadoran-born project manager.

About 40 percent of the workers rebuilding the Pentagon are Hispanic, most of them immigrants, according to Defense Department and construction officials. They are a vivid illustration of how immigrants are transforming certain industries, especially in Washington.

In providing the muscle for one of the nation's most patriotism-infused building projects, immigrants at the Pentagon say they are demonstrating their contributions to the United States. But they don't miss the irony: The site has become a symbol of why many Americans have hardened their attitude toward immigrants since the attacks of Sept. 11.

"This is a way to show the American people that not all immigrants who come to this country have the evil mind of destruction," said Ortiz, 31, of the District.

The Latin influence is obvious at the Pentagon site. Many signs are bilingual. Some meetings are translated into Spanish. And at lunchtime, a truck rolls onto the dirt construction area offering piping-hot tamales and Salvadoran pupusas.

"Most of them [workers] are Salvadoran," said Carlos Lizama, a jeans-clad Bethesda resident who was born in El Salvador and is the superintendent of concrete work for the Pentagon reconstruction, known as the Phoenix Project. "You can find people from Nicaragua, Mexico, you name it. I mean, there are all the Latin American countries."

The high number of immigrants reflects the sweeping change in many areas of Washington's workforce in recent years. Nationally, about 15 percent of construction workers are legal immigrants, according to the Labor Research Organization, a New York-based nonprofit group. Locally, the figure is much higher, although no one has exact data. There also is a large number of illegal immigrants in the industry.

Immigrants are especially numerous in the lower-skilled end of the building trades. For example, about half the members of Laborers International Union locals in the Washington area are Latino, union officials say. At the biggest general contractor in the area, Clark Construction Group, three-quarters of the laborers are of Latin American origin.

"It's an amazing demographic transformation that's happened in the metro Washington area in the last 20 years," said Dennis Desmond, secretary of Local 11 of the Laborers International in Alexandria. The change, experts said, was driven by a growing construction industry hungry for relatively cheap labor.

Construction "tends to be work, not unlike cleaning work or domestic work, that immigrants will take," Desmond said.

Not that this is any job. The Phoenix Project is a $740 million marathon effort expected to fully repair the Pentagon by spring 2003. Workers are pouring cement, hanging limestone slabs and installing plumbing lines in a blur of activity currently lasting 20 hours a day, six days a week.

Many of the immigrants rebuilding the Pentagon came to America the hard way, sneaking across the Mexican border. Ortiz sloshed across the Rio Grande 13 years ago.

On a recent day, he gazed from a viewing platform at the restored Pentagon's vast gray wall.

"Who would have thought, 13 years ago, when I was on my porch in El Salvador, that I'd be standing outside the Pentagon?" marveled the supervisor.

Ortiz is among the lucky ones. Like many Salvadorans who arrived in the late 1980s, he quickly got a temporary work permit and eventually became a legal permanent resident. He is the father of three U.S.-born girls and owns a house in Fort Totten.

"A few years from now, we're going to try the citizenship," said Ortiz, who works for a Pentagon subcontractor, Potomac Services.

Others have fewer guarantees about their future.

Danilo Aleman stripped asbestos for three months in the fall as part of the demolition that began soon after the hijacked American Airlines jet slammed into the Pentagon's western face.

Like many workers in the high-risk asbestos-removal field, Aleman travels to projects across the country, jumping into his car when a recruiter calls. At the Pentagon, he worked 12-hour shifts seven days a week, tumbling into bed at night in a cheap hotel room he shared with two other immigrants.

For the Honduran immigrant, a fervent patriot who displays the U.S. flag on his car, his bandanna and even his 6-month-old son's clothing, working at the Pentagon was an honor.

"I'd give my life for the United States," said Aleman, 28, a New Orleans resident. He came to this country illegally eight years ago, fleeing poverty, and obtained working papers in 1999. "This is the country that's fed me. I even tell my mother [in Honduras] . . . I owe everything I have to this country."

But it's not clear whether Aleman will be able to stay here. Like many Honduran and Salvadoran laborers at the Pentagon, he has temporary protected status, which grants them short-term work permits while their countries recover from disasters.

The permits for Hondurans expire in July; the U.S. government hasn't said whether it will extend them.

Several immigrants said the Pentagon work was especially appealing because of the good wages, which could reach $19 an hour for asbestos removal, for example.

Some, however, complained that they had difficulty collecting their pay from subcontractors. An immigrant service group, CASA of Maryland, intervened on behalf of six Latino workers who said they were not paid their full wages by ACM Services Inc. of Rockville.

Steven Smitson, a CASA attorney, said many workers won't complain because of the language barrier or because they don't know their rights.

He said, however, that ACM might be correct in blaming paperwork errors for the wage dispute. The company agreed to pay the workers represented by CASA. ACM's comptroller, Scott Sherwood, said the disputes were simply due to laborers failing to fill out their sign-in sheets.

The Pentagon project is strict about hiring only legal workers, officials said. A Pentagon spokesman, Glenn Flood, said that in "less than a dozen" cases, workers were found using other laborers' badges.

About 250 workers are toiling on the reconstruction, down from a high of about 1,000 during the demolition in the fall, a Pentagon spokeswoman said.

"For everybody on my crew, it's a wild experience," Ortiz said. "It's history they'll be telling to their grandchildren."

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