The most desperate men park themselves on corners well before dawn, hoping for first dibs on jobs.
Most days, no one gets dibs — no one gets jobs.
Foreclosures are at record highs, home sales are at record lows and skittish consumers are cutting back on spending, all of which means contractors, construction crews and carpenters are no longer hiring. Neither are landscapers, cleaning services or homeowners.
Work, never a given for day laborers in the best of times, is almost nonexistent these days.
"These are the worst of times," would-be worker Ramon De la Cruz said recently in Spanish, noting that he had worked only one day in the previous six.
De la Cruz came here from Tabasco, Mexico three years ago to earn money to provide for his daughter, now 5. Only a year ago, he could still make $500 a week.
But Graton (pop. 1,815), sits in western Sonoma County, which has been hit hard by the housing downturn. Home loan defaults nearly tripled from 2006 to 2007, while housing prices dropped by 22 percent, according to DataQuick, a real estate data firm.
De la Cruz and his friends at the Graton Day Labor Center, where seven out of 70 workers might nab work on what passes for a good day, are not sure what they will do. Some have tried moving to other states only to find that workers everywhere are reeling under the fallout from the nation's housing woes.
Not since the weeks after Sept. 11, when the entire nation froze in shock, have day laborers been in a more precarious position, according to workers and their advocates.
Already among the poorest, most stigmatized workers in the country, the nation's approximately 100,000 day laborers, many here illegally, are finding themselves struggling as never before. Without the proper documents, their job options are limited to odd jobs for cash. Without those, many can barely feed themselves, let alone provide for their families, here or in their native countries.
And they're facing more competition for the few jobs that are left. As companies in the housing and home improvement industries have cut back on salaried employees, many of those workers have joined the day labor pool.
As a result, advocates say, more day laborers are becoming homeless, more are taking risks for jobs that endanger their health or don't pay and more are spending their days haunting street corners, where they are resented, even reviled.
"Our fear is that the economic downturn will create a perfect storm where day laborers will be scapegoated more than they already are," said Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. "They're already deemed symbols of a broken immigration system. What will happen next?'
In the last year, cities and states across the country have been stepping up efforts to drive away day laborers.
In Phoenix, for instance, the county sheriff began rounding up undocumented day laborers even before a state law took effect Jan. 1 punishing employers who hire illegal immigrants. In Oklahoma, a state law that took effect in November makes it a felony to transport, hire or shelter any one who lacks the documents proving legal status in this country.
Citizens who oppose illegal immigration are taking their own action. In Houston, members of U.S. Border Watch, a civilian border patrol group, scribble down license plate numbers at popular day labor hiring spots and report would-be employers to federal authorities.
Chris Simcox, founder and president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a Phoenix-based civil border patrol, said his group has been hearing from communities burdened by idle day laborers.
The laborers used to migrate for jobs, but with no work, they are staying in one spot and creating a nuisance, he said. "We hear complaints of public urination, littering and petty shoplifting," Simcox said, echoing common gripes in cities that have passed ordinances to push the day laborers off their corners.
Most immigrants here illegally will try to ride out the economic downturn, their advocates say.
"They know the situation is even more desperate where they come from," said Rene Saucedo, an organizer and former director of the San Francisco Day Labor Center.
Meanwhile, the lack of work, a hostile environment and fear of deportation is having a devastating effect, Saucedo said. Some, she said, are taking to drowning their sorrows in a bottle.
"Because they're barely surviving and not able to provide for their families," she said, "a lot of them suffer from depression and feelings of worthlessness."
None of this helps the workers or their advocates fend off those who believe they have no right to be in this country.
In towns like Graton, where day laborers have a place to wait for work, residents tend to be more sympathetic to their plight.
The Graton center, open since September, is considered a model day laborer center. It was organized after a year's worth of community meetings, and built by day laborers and community volunteers. Volunteers hold English classes five days a week and teach practical skills.
The other day, 50 men and six women showed up when the center opened at 7 a.m., most not expecting to find work, said Juan Cuandon of Mexico City, a 27-year-old day laborer who is also an organizer for the Graton Day Labor Center.
The workers, ranging in age from about 18 to 50, milled around folding tables, drinking coffee, bundled fat against a chilly morning. Some reminisced about the days when they made up to $700 a week.
Underneath their amiable chatter, the workers were all very worried, Cuandon said, speaking Spanish.
"Winter doesn't help," he said. "The hope is that jobs will bloom again in the spring."