Laboring for Justice
The Fight Against Wage Theft in an American City
Rebecca Berke Galemba




Yes, indeed, it is a bit strange, complicated, curious. Because, before, all this was Mexican land. Colorado, New Mexico, Texas. And now afterward, because of some greedy people, some money, we lost everything . . . so much land. If not, just imagine: today, Mexico would be much, much, much bigger.

—Severiano A. interview with Abbey Vogel

CLAUDIO WORE A LONG BRAID down his back with a red cap perched on top.1 He was waiting to find day labor employment at the intersection of Federal Boulevard and 19th Street in West Denver, Colorado, when I met him in August 2015 (Figure 1). The sleek metal curves of the Denver Broncos stadium hovered in the background of the informal hiring site as the August sun pierced through the stadium’s upper rungs. It was early in the morning, and I had just arrived at the corner with graduate student Max Spiro and an attorney, Raja Raghunath, to talk to day laborers about their work experiences and help conduct intakes for Raja’s wage theft clinic.2

Claudio was a 53-year-old undocumented immigrant from Veracruz, Mexico, who had lived in Denver since 2003. He was nursing a work-related foot injury sustained a few months earlier. He never asked his employer for assistance because he wanted to avoid problems, although his mounting medical expenses worried him. In need of income, Claudio even returned to work for this same employer. That time, the employer shortchanged him $350 for his work. Why would Claudio return to work for a boss from whom he was still seeking payment for medical expenses? Claudio directed his gaze at me, his answer obvious: “There is not much work. You think that people are good and sometimes it is not true.” After not being able to work for months because of his injury, Claudio was back at the corner soliciting employment. He hoped that his injury would not prevent employers from hiring him.3

FIGURE 1: Day laborer waiting for work at the Federal and 19th Street hiring site. Author’s artistic interpretation of photo. Photo of artwork by N.A.P. @ pHactory8.

Most day laborers like Claudio are immigrants from Latin America who seek daily work for cash; nationwide, about three-quarters are undocumented.4 Day laborers are usually hired by lower-level subcontractors, labor brokers, and home owners.5 Day labor was previously mostly limited to large, traditional immigrant gateway cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, but day labor hiring sites have expanded across the United Stated alongside the wider informalization of employment, economic restructuring, and rise in immigration from Latin America in the 1990s.6 Day laborers may solicit employment at a street corner like Claudio, outside a home improvement store, or at one of the growing network of nonprofit worker centers around the country. They tend to work in industries associated with residential construction—masonry, painting, roofing, cleaning, and demolition—as well as in moving and landscaping.7

On a typical day at a street corner hiring site, a truck screeches to a halt, the driver rolls down the window, and yells out how many workers they need for the day (Figure 2). One man waiting at the corner, Javier, explained, “Sometimes the employer will stick out his fingers . . . 1, 2, 3” to indicate their preferences. Workers rush to the passenger side window as they jockey with one another to get the job while they also attempt to assess the nature of the work, hours, and wages. Accordingly, Javier asserted, “We fish too. . . . We are the piranhas. We will say, ‘Take me, I’m tougher, stronger, more experienced.’” Still, day laborers often have just a few minutes to negotiate with the employer before getting into the vehicle. “If the employer chooses you,” Javier added, “you go. Many times the patrones [bosses] choose, the short one, the thin one . . .”

Day laborers in the Denver area dub street corner hiring sites liebres—jackrabbits in Spanishbecause landing a job requires a mix of cunning and speed. Ivan, a man from El Salvador whose peers nicknamed him “the jewelry man” because of his multiple chain necklaces, explained the term liebre: “You have to run to the job . . . to grab the job first. The quickest wins.” The race to compete for limited work exists in tension with solidarity that develops as workers wait together for work, sometimes for hours and day after day. Ivan commented: “There is competition, [but] others work in solidarity. I am solidario [supportive/in solidarity] and respectful.”

FIGURE 2: Day laborers hanging out by a truck at the Kentucky and Sheridan site. Author’s artistic interpretation of photo. Photo of artwork by N.A.P. @ pHactory8.

“A day worked is a day paid,” day laborers assert, meaning that they expect to be paid for their work at the end of each day. They fear employers who string them along, promising to pay later or even disappearing. Wage theft—what occurs when employers underpay workers like Claudio or refuse to pay them at all—is rampant in day labor markets. The rapid, competitive, and unregulated nature of day labor makes workers vulnerable to low pay, insecure employment, discrimination, victimization, hazardous working conditions, and labor violations like wage theft.8 Desperation for work, fear of immigration consequences, and lack of alternatives motivate workers like Claudio to work through injuries, not complain, and sometimes chance risky job offers even when they know better. Despite the odds, Claudio had faith that his luck would improve.


Wage theft occurs when individuals do not receive their legally owed wages and benefits. Legal status should not technically matter because wage-and-hour laws apply to all employees who have performed work in the United States regardless of their immigration status. Yet the inclusion of unauthorized immigrant workers into these protections was not designed to benefit them. Instead, it is intended to deter employers from hiring unauthorized workers so that they do not receive an undue competitive advantage. Nevertheless, US labor laws offer some of the few tools that unauthorized workers can draw on to address a subset of the kinds of exploitation they endure.

Labor laws stand as an exception to a US legal system that provides few forms of protection or relief to unauthorized immigrants and is otherwise largely dedicated to policing and removing them. Unauthorized immigrants are legally prohibited from living and working in the United States. But if they do the work, wage and hour laws entitle them to minimum wage, overtime, and the right to bring a wage claim against employers who violate these laws. Because they often work in the shadows, unauthorized immigrants who seek protections under US labor laws find themselves in a catch-22: they need to make their exploitation visible to pursue legal remedies when their labor rights are violated, but there is usually little to no record of their employment or presence. Scant record of their employment and their potential for removal are precisely what make unauthorized workers lucrative to employers and easy to exploit. Although laws prohibit employers from wielding immigration status to threaten workers who attempt to exercise their labor rights, employers frequently get away with it. The fear of immigration consequences, employers’ relative positions of power, informal hiring arrangements, and restricted employment options make unauthorized immigrants hesitant to assert the limited labor rights they are afforded. This catch-22 makes wage theft a productive site from which to analyze how changing immigration enforcement patterns affect labor rights, as well as the possibilities for developing legal and organizing strategies to advance the rights of immigrant workers.9


Laboring for Justice brings together over seven years of engaged anthropological research to explore day laborers’ experiences with wage theft in Denver and how advocates have supported workers to navigate courts and labor agencies, improve worker protections, and accompany workers to pursue justice. Latino immigrant day laborers like Claudio are not uniquely susceptible to wage theft, but their precarious legal and economic position combined with racial discrimination make them especially vulnerable.10 Yet their predicament is also portending for growing numbers of workers in advanced capitalist economies as work has become increasingly precarious and insecure.11

This introduction outlines the book’s theoretical arguments, which draw from the experiences of Latino immigrant day laborers and advocates to highlight how wage theft is more than an individual or even an immigrant problem. By centering the plight of day laborers, I argue that wage theft is a broader systemic and structural problem that is produced by, and a wider symptom of, the informalization and growing insecurity of work, weak labor standards enforcement, deepening interior racialized immigration surveillance, more militarized national borders, and systemic racism.12 The same factors that condition wage theft impede the ability of workers to protect themselves, confront their employers, or request assistance when they weigh trade-offs of scarce work opportunities, the low likelihood of wage recovery, and retaliatory threats. I explore the challenges of policy advocacy, legal assistance, and accompaniment. While legal and policy reforms have improved access to justice and accountability, I consider how regulatory approaches can risk cordoning off social problems about escalating inequality to the legal realm and deflecting them out of political debate and public engagement. Despite the obstacles, I highlight how day laborers devise creative strategies to promote worker justice, resist, and assert their dignity in the face of precarity. After setting out the theoretical contributions, I detail the Colorado and Denver contexts, the local advocacy landscape around wage theft, the day labor hiring sites in the Denver metropolitan area, my methodological and community-engaged approach, and the organization of the chapters.

The concept of wage theft began to provide allies with a useful organizing and advocacy tool to reframe discourses that criminalize immigrants to redirect the gaze at the criminal behavior of employers who exploit them. Policymakers also started to pay more attention to wage theft, recognizing that wage theft investigations could reveal graver types of criminal employer behavior such as labor trafficking.13 Yet wage theft is indicative of subtler forms of theft that are widely accepted as exploitative labor practices become routine across low-wage industries.14 These labor practices often blur the line between “routine exploitation and criminal behavior” but decimate working conditions, subject low-wage workers to disproportionate rates of workplace illness, mistreatment and injuries, and erode wages amid rising costs of living.15

From a Marxist perspective, the capitalist concept of wages intrinsically constitutes a form of theft. Capitalist relations divorce the performance of work from its later payment, making workers rely on debt or savings while they await compensation and employers benefit from their labor as “credit.”16 Wages obscure the power dynamics of “unequal exchange between a class that possesses money and another that is compelled to work for free . . . to continue to exist” and the surplus value from wage labor that employers enjoy even after wages are paid.17

I argue that wage theft is not an exceptional aberration, but instead inheres in how the economy is increasingly organized. Wage theft is a “structural crime,”18 meaning that it is enabled by prevailing power dynamics and social, economic, and racial hierarchies. This form of theft can provide a window into the wider structural factors under advanced capitalism that degrade employment and increasingly normalize stagnant and low wages, job insecurity, and lack of benefits and protections.19

This book also offers pedagogical reflections on community-engaged research and teaching, starting from a place of convivencia—or standing alongside and listening to workers. Throughout the book, I interrogate the process of accompanying workers and pushing for policy changes in my own city, including negotiating my position and the roles of my students who worked on this project under my supervision.


The book makes three related theoretical interventions. First, the reason that immigrant day laborers are vulnerable to wage theft and hesitant to seek redress is not because they are excluded from US society or labor protections. US immigration laws prohibit, but in practice do not necessarily prevent, unauthorized immigrants from living or working in the United States. Instead of exclusion, unauthorized immigrants experience subordinate inclusion.20 Lack of legal status guarantees their subordinate position in the labor market as low-wage workers who are wary of exercising their limited rights, which benefits employers and a variety of other actors and industries.21

Second, wage theft is not an exceptional or solely individual crime. Most existing legal remedies are overly individualistic and reactive, meaning that they rely on individuals to come forward to seek restitution after their rights are violated. Treating wage theft as an individualized incident or dispute can distract attention from the power discrepancies and structural factors that render it systemic. Wage theft is a symptom of how decimated labor standards enforcement, unaccountable contracting arrangements, the decline of organized labor, and the devaluation of immigrants have degraded employment and normalized increasingly unjust wages and widening economic inequality.22 By examining how immigrant day laborers experience, seek recourse to, and aim to prevent wage theft, I show how this theft is just one outcome of the trajectory of neoliberal racial capitalism, which appropriates value from immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities, and workers to advance processes of accumulation. By policing citizenship and granting differential forms of inclusion, the state delivers a “subsidy to corporate capital” by segmenting the labor force, its value, and rights based on immigration status and national origins.23 Thus wage theft committed against immigrant workers is structurally guaranteed through the US state itself.

Third, Laboring for Justice contributes to scholarship on forms of structural, symbolic, and legal violence by showing how day laborers and advocates reconfigure what justice looks like in the face of precarious work. Scholars have described Latino immigrant day laborers as a structurally vulnerable population.24 This term refers to populations that are individually and as a social group exposed to structural violence, or the patterned forms of harm and suffering baked into the social structure.25 To counter explanations that blame the vulnerable for their suffering, structural violence directs attention to the forces that limit individual choice and agency.26 Specifically, poverty, racial discrimination, and lack of immigration status structure immigrant day laborers’ marginal position in society, which is aggravated by the nature of contingent work.27 Cecilia Menjívar and Leisy Abrego add the barrier of legal violence as the violence of immigration law seeps into the work and home lives of the unauthorized to instill fear and curtail their mobility, resources, and opportunities.28

Day laborers’ structural vulnerability makes them especially prone to labor violations and illness and injury, as well as stress, social isolation, substance abuse, homelessness, and depression.29 Because their vulnerability is produced through the social structure, marginalized groups and individuals like day laborers may internalize the social order and the roots of their oppression as individual failings; scholars call this process of internalization “symbolic violence.”30 Symbolic violence refers to how individuals misperceive the exploitative social order as natural, as well as how they shape their behavior in ways that inadvertently reproduce the oppressive social order.31

In a rich literature that details how structural, symbolic, and legal violence make immigrant day laborers vulnerable to low wages, wage theft, and injury, wary to report workplace violations and organize,32 and even likely to internalize suffering as their own individual failings, I contribute to this discussion by drawing attention to the diverse tactics workers draw on to endure, contest, and prevent exploitation.33 While it is important to understand the structural factors that constrain day laborers’ choices, depictions of structural violence can risk portraying it as all-encompassing and defeating, leaving little room for transformation or resistance.34

Structural vulnerability does not preclude worker organizing or solidarity. However, day laborers’ strategies often do not meet advocates’ preconceived notions of social justice activism. I show that day laborers’ more nuanced forms of social action or even nonaction—doing nothing, claiming that only God can exact justice for their suffering—may be misrecognized as symbolic violence. Instead, I point to how comments that may otherwise signal futility can be read as constituting restrained forms of agency in a context of extreme marginalization.

Day laborers draw on what James Scott calls “weapons of the weak” as they resist undignified working conditions while simultaneously submitting to them in order to acquire work.35 For example, day laborers’ “hidden” and more overt “transcripts,” or ways of interacting at the hiring sites, serve to warn others of unscrupulous employers.36 Workers yell out “don’t go” or simply remain quiet when employers with bad reputations solicit workers. They informally organize to upgrade the wage floor at the liebre, creating an unspoken understanding to reject low offers. At worksites, workers speed up or slow down work to maximize income and push back on employers who attempt to manipulate hours and payment agreements or request unpaid extra tasks. Although many day laborers prefer to move on rather than expend more time chasing unpaid wages, some do directly confront their employers, take them to court, or even attempt more violent tactics, including threats to steal tools. However, their actions also defy understandings of resistance. For example, workers often bend to employers’ whims to curry favor so they will be asked to perform more work, even though these behaviors can increase their risk of exploitation. As Javier explained, workers assert a sense of agency by acting as “piranhas” to fish for employers, but these behaviors reinforce the competitive nature of informal hiring sites that make workers susceptible to exploitation.

Throughout the book, I highlight the subtle, silent, and sometimes violent ways workers struggle to make their labor and lives visible, assert a place for themselves in US society, and articulate alternative visions of justice, even if their tactics are not organized, do not necessarily yield beneficial results, or are not readily recognizable to advocates.37 I attune to how day laborers develop strategies to convivir [coexist, get along, or be alongside] with other workers as a way to keep going, but also to establish human connections in a society that tends to devalue low-wage Latino immigrant workers. As Ivan noted, workers balance desires for solidarity with the realities of a competitive and informal hiring field. By establishing relationships based on convivencia, they shield themselves from fuller forms of trust and friendship that may pose risks in a competitive and unregulated market. Workers may also extend a guarded solidarity to researchers and advocates, with whom they seek camaraderie, support, and sometimes direct assistance, although this is distinct from their relationships with one another. They are aware that these relationships are often temporary, advocates may be unable to help, and they usually occupy vastly distinct positions in society.

At the start of this research, workers were silent when student interviewers asked about “wage theft.” The term connoted stigma, victimization, and shame. For some, it implied they had been duped. Even when workers wanted to report cases, their experiences were not reducible to incidences of victimhood.38 Workers’ experiences with wage theft were more complex than acquiescence, resistance, or even refusal. While scholarship on social and structural violence redirects blame away from marginalized populations to hold the power structure, as well as powerful actors, accountable, Eve Tuck warns that research that centers suffering can inflict harm by reproducing one-dimensional depictions of marginalized communities as “broken.”39

By spending time with workers to learn about their work experiences, migration histories, and lives in the United States and accompanying workers who decide to pursue their unpaid wages, I sought to understand their lives more holistically. As I did, I became more unsettled when I used the term day laborer or even worker. These individuals were already overly defined by a society that largely values them for their (cheap and temporary) labor rather than as complex human beings.40 I have not resolved this dilemma, but throughout this book, I tried to avoid directly labeling individuals with such modifiers when using pseudonyms, but I sometimes use these terms when referring to groups more broadly.


Many studies that explore the impact of immigration enforcement on labor rights are based in localities with relatively strong histories of labor and immigrant rights organizing, notably California, Chicago, and New York,41 or in traditional border reception sites like Texas.42 Alternatively, a growing body of scholarship focuses on newer immigrant destinations, notably states in the South and Southeast with more virulent anti-immigrant policies,43 dismal labor protections, and histories of anti–Black racism, such as Angela Stuesse’s ethnography of Latino immigrant poultry workers in Mississippi,44 or studies of reconstruction in post–Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.45 Colorado, as a reemerging immigrant destination with a relatively weak but improving labor rights infrastructure, offers a window into how the local reception context shapes immigrant workers’ lived experiences. In particular, the state has straddled disparate positions on immigration and labor since the mid-2000s.

Colorado is a state of contrasts. According to 2019 US Census data, Colorado has the tenth to eleventh highest median household income in the country and is among the most educated states.46 Yet it sits near the bottom in K–12 and higher educational spending, state and local taxes, and Medicaid spending.47 Colorado has swung between having some of the most restrictive and most progressive state-level immigration policies. The state passed a flurry of anti-immigrant bills in the 2006–2007 legislation session including SB90, one of the nation’s first show-me-your papers bills and a predecessor to Arizona’s infamous SB1070 in 2010, which was the most expansive and stringent anti-immigrant law at the time. Colorado’s Representative Tom Tancredo was a major player in introducing anti-immigrant legislation at the national level, such as the draconian Mass Immigration Reduction Act (2001 and 2003), during his tenure in the US House of Representatives from 1999 to 2009. In the mid-2000s, Colorado had some of the most anti-immigrant policies in the country.48

However, the state began to change after the 2008 Obama election, especially as the demographic composition of the state shifted.49 In response to laws like SB90 and galvanized by immigrant rights mobilizations occurring around the country in 2006, more grassroots immigrant rights organizations emerged in the state and intensified organizing efforts.50 As a result of political change and pro-immigrant organizing and advocacy, Colorado’s state-level measures made it one of the most “welcoming” for immigrants by 2013.51

The state’s labor policies have also varied. Colorado has a tense labor history, especially because of its historical dependence on mining. The state witnessed two of US labor history’s most violent manifestations of employer retaliation in response to workers striking to protest poor working conditions and attempting to organize: the 1903–1904 Colorado Labor Laws and the 1913–1914 Colorado Coalfield War, including the 1914 Ludlow massacre of twenty-one men, women, and children occupying a tent labor camp.52

Currently, Colorado’s Labor Peace Act suspends Colorado somewhere between union and right-to-work states by applying higher standards before a workplace can become a union shop.53 Progressive policy pushes to spend are frequently restrained by Colorado’s regressive tax policies. In 1992, Colorado voters approved the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) via ballot initiative. TABOR severely restrains the legislature’s taxation and spending power and has led Colorado to have “the most restrictive tax and expenditure limitations” in the country.54

Colorado historically served as the gateway to the Mountain West. Denver’s emergence as a financial, transportation, and communications hub is closely associated with the discovery of gold in 1858 and drives for westward expansion.55 It developed an early reputation as a city of newcomers, from miners in the nineteenth century to health migrants after World War II, who came to Colorado for its “dry climate, high elevation, clean air, mild weather, and abundant sunshine,” which they believed was therapeutic for tuberculosis.56 Colorado also attracted a significant portion of the Mexican immigrant flow in the 1920s, but its importance waned as the bracero temporary labor exchange program concentrated Mexican laborers in California and Texas even though some came to Colorado to work in the sugar beet fields.57

In the 1970s and 1980s, Colorado, much like other regions in the West, South, and Sunbelt, began to attract new populations from cities in the Northeast, not only because of their hospitable climates but also in response to economic restructuring as firms were attracted to these states’ probusiness climates, cheaper energy costs, and lower union density.58 In the 1990s, Mexican immigration to the state regained importance and Colorado became considered a “reemerging” or “renewed historical destination.”59 By 2000, Colorado was seventh of the top ten destinations for Mexican immigrants.60 Its Hispanic population grew from 12.9 percent of the population in 1990 to 21 percent by 2014.61

In recent years, Colorado has surged to become one of the four fastest-growing states in the country, largely fueled by interstate moves by millennials, retirees, students, and outdoor enthusiasts, which has created tensions around growth, development, gentrification, resources, affordability, transportation, and sustainability.62 Colorado stands out as a state of newcomers: the majority of residents originate from other states.63 These changes began to lead the state to lose its swing-state moniker as it shifted more to the left but also incited nativist backlash; for example, the popularity of seemingly innocuous “Colorado Native” bumper stickers.64 Alongside progressive shifts in cities like Denver and even within the state legislature, individuals like gun-rights advocate Lauren Boebert were elected to represent Colorado’s Third Congressional District in 2021. Boebert introduced two anti-immigrant bills, the No Amnesty Act and Secure the Southern Border Act.65

Colorado’s identity as a state of newcomers not only fueled nativist retrenchment, but belies the state’s character as a frontier of western expansion led by pioneers. Immigrant workers’ experiences with wage theft must be considered from an alternate rendering of the state’s settler-colonial foundations. As Gledhill insists, “The mode of insertion of Mexican labor into U.S. capitalism has always been overdetermined by the colonial constructions of a nation-state founded on military expansion and the racist social imaginary of ‘whiteness.’66 Modern Colorado was built on the theft of land and labor from Native Americans and Mexico. The western quarter of the state was part of Mexico before the Treaty of Guadalupe ceded it to the United States after the Mexican-American War in 1848. Colorado also has a historic Hispano population, used to refer to descendants of Spanish settlers residing in the Southwest prior to US annexation.67

In the mid-to late 1800s, rapid growth and resource exploitation of the hinterlands, notably through mining, to fuel Denver’s development were accomplished via racist narratives that framed Native Americans as “obstacles of progress.”68 When Denver was founded in 1858, northeastern Colorado was largely Cheyenne and Arapaho territory, and its west belonged to the Ute Nation.69 Settlers and troops, under the direction of territorial Governor John Evans, violently expropriated land from, and exterminated, the state’s Native populations, most viscerally through the Sand Creek Massacre when US Army Colonel John Chivington led a massacre of “over 160 Cheyenne and Arapaho, mostly women and children” in 1864.70 The University of Denver, where I work, sits on stolen Cheyenne and Arapaho land. Only recently, after an investigation and report authored by multiple faculty in 2014, has the university begun to come to terms with its ties to John Evans and slowly rename titles and buildings bearing his name. As of this writing, however, it retains the racist “Pioneer” mascot.71

Denver’s twentieth-century development additionally benefited from the constrained mobility of African Americans, racist housing policies, and urban renewal projects in the name of progress that disproportionately displaced communities of color.72 The Ku Klux Klan exerted strong influence in Denver—its Colorado epicenter—in the 1920s; it played an outsized role in Colorado politics and “no other state in the Rocky Mountain West compared in membership or political clout.”73

However, such narratives of progress that have obscured processes of racial capitalism and dispossession have also been valiantly resisted through community organizing. For instance, Colorado became an important front “far out of proportion to the size of its Mexican-origin population” in the Chicano movement in the 1960s until its decline in the mid 1970s.74 In Colorado, the movement was led by the Crusade for Justice, founded by professional boxer and politician Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales to restore Chicano pride, combat systemic discrimination, and advocate for self-determination.75 Another notable outcome of tireless resistance by activists was the official renaming of a neighborhood named for former mayor and Klan supporter Ben Stapleton as Central Park in August 2020.76

In recent years, redevelopment efforts to expand Colorado’s Central 70 highway continue legacies of theft in the largely Latino and immigrant neighborhoods of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea by pressuring residents to sell their homes by invoking eminent domain, and in some cases even blighting neighborhoods to drive down home prices when residents were reluctant to sell. Yet vocal activist Candi CdeBaca beat the two-term incumbent to become the first Democratic Socialist and LGBTQ Latina on Denver City Council in 2019. As the representative of District 9 where her family has lived for five generations, she continued the legacy of her relatives who organized when highway expansion first sliced the community in half in the 1960s. Her family members also helped file one of the first lawsuits against the smelting plant that led to a designation of a Superfund site.77 The area is one of the most polluted residential zip codes in the country, with high rates of childhood asthma, certain kinds of cancer, and cardiac disease.78

This history goes far beyond the scope of the book, but these brief sketches demonstrate the continuity of tensions among theft normalized by racial capitalism, the imprint of racism and settler colonialism, and strides of resistance and revival. The main point of this book is that wage theft is not new or exceptional, but foundational and routine. It is deeply embedded in a US history of violent settler colonialism and racial capitalism built on, and maintained through, theft of land, labor, and bodies deemed expendable.


1. Portions of “Claudio’s story” appear in Galemba and Kuhn 2021 and Galemba 2017.

2. I use the actual names of advocates, students, union organizers, and attorneys with their permission and to credit them for their work. Workers’ names are pseudonyms to protect their anonymity, with the exceptions of Davor, Diana, and Severiano, who gave permission to use only their first names. I use pseudonyms for employers and companies to avoid any potential liabilities.

3. Pressure to keep earning and stigma may motivate workers to work through, or not report, injuries (Horton 2016a; Saxton and Stuesse 2018, 69; Unterberger 2018).

4. Valenzuela et al. 2006.

5. Ibid., 9; Ordóñez 2015.

6. Peck and Theodore 2012, 744; Theodore 2007, 251.

7. Valenzuela et al. 2006; Peck and Theodore 2012; Ordóñez 2015.

8. Valenzuela et al. 2006; Theodore et al. 2008; Theodore 2007, 2017, 2020. Meléndez et al. 2014; Valdez et al. 2019; Walter et al. 2002.

9. Gomberg-Muñoz and Nussbaum-Barberena 2011.

10. Shannon Gleeson (2016, 7) argues that lack of legal status acts as a “precarity multiplier” by providing extra assurance to employers that they will likely get away with exploitation.

11. Doussard 2013; Apostolidis 2019.

12. Ollus et al. 2016.

13. Farrell et al. 2020.

14. Leighton 2019; Davies 2018; Lloyd et al. 2020.

15. Davies 2019, 305; Lloyd et al. 2020, 6, cited in Galemba 2021, 93. See Doussard 2013.

16. Labban 2013; Marx 1977.

17. Ibid.

18. Ollus et al. 2016.

19. Doussard 2013; Labban 2013.

20. Chauvin and Garcés-Mascareñas 2014; De Genova 2002; Espiritu 2003.

21. De Genova 2002, 2013; Espiritu 2003; Chauvin and Garcés-Mascareñas 2014.

22. Doussard 2013.

23. Smith-Nonini 2011, 464; Walia 2021; Segrave 2017.

24. Quesada, Hart, and Bourgois 2011; Quesada et al. 2014.

25. Quesada, Hart, and Bourgois 2011, 340; Galtung 1975, 173.

26. Quesada, Hart, and Bourgois 2011, 341.

27. Quesada et al. 2014.

28. Menjívar and Abrego 2012.

29. Haro et al. 2020; Theodore et al. 2006, 2008; Valenzuela et al. 2006; Bobo 2011; Organista, Arreola, and Neilands 2017; Walter et al. 2002; Walter, Bourgois, and Loinaz 2004; Quesada et al. 2014; Duke, Bourdeau, and Hovey 2010; Boyas, Valera, and Ruiz 2018.

30. Bourdieu 2003; Quesada, Hart, and Bourgois 2011; Ordóñez 2015.

31. Ibid.

32. Ordóñez 2015; Quesada et al. 2014; Holmes 2013.

33. See an exception in Stuesse’s (2016) ethnography, which explores how activist research can contribute to organizing across difference among Mississippi poultry workers. Also see Apostolidis 2019.

34. See the critiques in Horton 2016a and Tuck 2009 (thanks to Emily Yates-Doerr for recommending Tuck’s work).

35. Scott 1985; see Stuesse (2016, 156–157) on how Latino immigrant poultry workers tend to acquiesce to their working conditions to “get ahead” instead of deploying tactics of resistance more commonly used by their African American coworkers.

36. Scott 1985.

37. Bayat 2013.

38. Tuck 2009, 413; hooks 1990.

39. Tuck 2009, 409.

40. Golash-Boza 2012.

41. For California, see Quesada et al. 2014; Duke, Bourdeau, and Hovey 2010; Ordóñez 2015; Gleeson 2016; Holmes 2013; Horton 2016a; Zlolniski 2003, 2006; Milkman 2006. See Doussard (2013) on Chicago and Bernhardt et al.’s (2009) comparative study of low-wage workers in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. See also Fine and Gordon (2010) for strategic enforcement in New York and Los Angeles.

42. Heyman 1998; Theodore 2017, 2020. Also see Crotty 2014, 2017, 2018 for Southern California, another traditional border reception area.

43. See Armenta 2017.

44. Stuesse 2016.

45. Fussell 2011; Waren 2014; Schneider 2018.

46. World Population Review 2021; Daum et al. 2011.

47. Daum et al. 2011, 3; Fermanich 2011.

48. Berardi 2014.

49. Daum et al. 2011.

50. Ibid.; Berardi 2014.

51. Berardi 2014, 1. In 2013, Colorado repealed SB90 and approved measures to provide access to driver’s licenses and in-state college tuition for undocumented residents (Martínez 2014).

52. Taft 1966.

53. Sealover 2017; Colorado Department of Labor and Employment Labor Peace Act, Title 3, Article 8.

54. Moore 2011, 226; Bell Policy Center 2017.

55. Goetz and Boschmann 2018.

56. Ibid., 4.

57. Zuñiga and Hernández León 2005, 6; Ngai 2004.

58. Goetz and Boschmann 2018, 7.

59. Riosmena and Massey 2012; Zúñiga and Hernández-Leon 2005, xiv.

60. Zúñiga and Hernández-Leon 2005, xiv.

61. Daum et al. 2011, 11; Pew Research Center 2014.

62. Goetz and Boschmann 2018.

63. Daum et al. 2011, 2.

64. Ibid., 2; Goetz and Boschmann 2018.

65. I appreciate Sarah Horton’s suggestion to include this example.

66. Gledhill 1998, 280.

67. Varsanyi 2020, 13.

68. Goetz and Boschmann 2018, 4.

69. Ibid., 41.

70. Ibid., 4, 41.

71. Clemmer-Smith et al. 2014.

72. See Goodstein on the history of the Five Points neighborhood, once a center of Denver’s Black community with a vibrant business center and jazz scene (Goodstein 2014, 148). However, the area became increasingly overcrowded with deteriorating living conditions, especially because racist housing and lending policies limited the mobility of African Americans until the legislature passed the Fair Housing Act in 1959 (ibid., 156, 160). In the 1950s and 1960s, as many African Americans moved out and urban renewal projects ignored the neighborhood, it began to suffer from decay, disinvestment, crime, and poor public services (ibid., 160). In 2012, a large section was declared “blighted” to pave the way for urban renewal (ibid., 170). Many residents and local businesses opposed the plans, arguing that “urban renewal programs had invariably strengthened the rich while displacing the poor” and constituted plans to “drive poor African-Americans from the neighborhood . . . to transform the area into a white yuppie annex of the central business district” (ibid.). Recently, downtown redevelopment has made Five Points one of the hottest new housing areas.

73. Goldberg 1981, xi.

74. Vigil 1999, 18.

75. Ibid.

76. Goldberg 1981, 30.

77. These industrial neighborhood attracted Eastern European and Jewish immigrants in the nineteenth century to work in smelting and meatpacking. When they moved out, the neighborhoods became increasingly Latino (History Colorado).

78. Information from my project, Building a More Robust and Diverse Construction Trades in the Denver Metro Area IRB 1321935 with Singumbe Muyeba. Interview conducted by Jack Becker with CREA Results, Carrie DuLaney, and Emily Spahn, February 26, 2020.