Ever since Alabama passed a tough immigration law last September, it’s been illegal to hire, house or even give a ride to undocumented immigrants in the state. But people have an uncanny ability to survive hostile environments.
Consider, for example, the informal repair shop hidden in plain site at a strip mall in Birmingham, Alabama.
At first glance, the scene appears like the average strip mall wasteland – a few cars, a few overturned shopping carts, cracked pavement. But behind an Autozone autoparts store, there is a steady flow of activity.
A thriving underground garage
Next to signs that read “No Solicitation,” Hispanic men in worn jeans and oil-stained sweaters lean into the windows of trucks and minivans, talking to the drivers, while their colleagues climb under cars, drain oil tanks and rev engines. This black market garage has no formal relationship with the parts store—and the mechanics are under constant threat of being arrested. (And therefore, only first names are used in this account)
Despite the challenges, the mechanics here, about half of them undocumented, make a living. Oscar, one of the parking lot mechanics, has a line of customers by noon, plus a few house calls. “I have a lot of friends,” he jokes. Oscar, 30 years old, is short and slight. When he slides under a car to work, he disappears almost completely. Oscar grew up in Mexico and learned to fix cars when he was eight. “You know, Mexico’s different,” Oscar explains. “You start working as children. Because you need to support your family.”
Click to hear sounds from the “underground garage”:
Fired from the construction industry
Last week, the police raided their black market garage. It happens every couple weeks. One mechanic from Mexico was arrested. If they are caught working on a car, the mechanics could be fined up to $4,000 or deported. The parking lot mechanics suspect that local repair shops report them in retaliation for enticing their customers with lower prices.
Another concern is safety. One of the mechanics, Carlos, lost a leg two years ago after a car in the shop where he was working fell on him. Only one of the mechanics here has insurance, and when asked what he will do if he gets hurt, Oscar jokes, “I never get hurt.”
Oscar has lived in Birmingham for 12 years and worked construction until two weeks ago. “They got me laid off. You know when
the economy’s down, they fire every body,” Oscar explains. “I got a family. I need to support my family. Where’s the best place to do that?”
Half of the parking lot mechanics say they were working construction until recently. Under the new law a construction company could be fined or even shut down for hiring undocumented workers. Oscar says he wasn’t let go because of the law; he says he has a green card. But Oscar says that jobs worry his papers are fake. “They’re nervous to hire me,” he says. “I’m Mexican and they’re worried.” Oscar says he would prefer to work construction. “Construction you make a salary every week. With this, sometimes you make a lot of money, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you stay here all day, you don’t make nothing.”
The daily routine
The mechanics arrive around eight or nine and stay till after dark. They repair everything from broken license plate lights to fan belts. They change tires. When days are good, they make about 200 bucks. Other days, close to nothing. Still, some say they prefer to work for themselves than “feel like an animal for $7 dollars an hour,” as a mechanic named Gary scoffs.
Oscar is filling the oil of a Dodge Caravan when a middle-aged woman walks over. “When you have a chance, will you come to my house, my car won’t start?” Oscar smiles at her, like he has anticipated this request. “The black one?” he chuckles. “Don’t look at me like that,” she laughs. She gives him her address, and he promises he will come after he finishes with the car he is working on.
Oscar has a reputation for being the best mechanic in the lot. He says it’s easy to work on cars, but he isn’t particularly proud of his job. Oscar has four kids. He says he will not teach his kids to fix cars. “Nah, I want a better life for my kids,” Oscar says, “To go to school. And one day, I’ll go back to school.”