As a dark SUV pulled up to a south Minneapolis street corner, Manuel and more than a dozen migrants sprinted down the sidewalk and mobbed the vehicle, clamoring for a seat inside. He tried to fight his way in, but a few men shoved past him into the backseat.

Manuel retreated, a power drill in the crook of his arm. Another day-labor job lost. Another bout of loitering on the corner, waiting, hoping another driver slowed down to pick up a few more migrants for a cash gig.

"They know we need a job and we'll pretty much work for anything," Manuel said in Spanish, his dark shoes and pants spattered with white paint.

A Darwinian scramble for survival plays out dozens of times a day at this corner, where scores of Ecuadorian migrants who arrived in the U.S. only months before desperately compete for any jobs they can land without work permits. The work-seekers, most of them men, say they'll do any job for almost any amount. To get in the backseat, Manuel said, "You have to be the fastest."

They've shoveled snow, raked leaves, painted apartments, cleaned homes — all for a stream of strangers who drive up to the busy commercial corner. "Even if you need your bathroom clean, I will clean the bathroom," vowed an Ecuadorian named Pedro. Yet as Minnesota faces a shortage of 168,000 workers, by one recent estimate, the migrants at this intersection struggle to find anything close to full-time employment without legal permission. Their immigration status pushes them into a shadow economy. Arrivals who are eager to work can wind up idling for days on the corner without getting picked up — scraping by, as one put it, día por día, day by day.

While immigrants have a long history of working day labor jobs, Minnesota and the nation as a whole have seen a dramatic rise in newcomers scrapping for work as record numbers have crossed the southern border. The Fort Snelling Immigration Court now has an unprecedented 38,620 cases pending; the largest group, with 10,686 cases, is from Ecuador.

They are mostly barred from receiving job permits until six months after they apply for asylum — a longstanding policy to discourage economic migrants. To receive asylum, they must prove persecution for race, political opinion, nationality, religion or social group. Indeed, while many on the corner spoke of fleeing from a country besieged by crime and poverty, they appear not to have a strong legal basis for asylum. In general, most cases are denied.

Democratic mayors, governors and congressional leaders have called on the federal government to approve migrants for work permits while their cases make their way through the backlogged courts, to ease the burden on taxpayers as migrants fill homeless shelters in New York, Chicago and Denver. But Congress is at an impasse on immigration. In Minnesota, Hennepin County's family shelters are half filled with new arrivals from Latin America and are at five times their regular capacity.

The migrants, who spoke Spanish, agreed to be interviewed only with their first names used.

Days before Manuel's near-miss, a driver took him and three other men 30 minutes away to load boxes into a truck. Manuel received $60 for four hours of labor. He wanted more, but didn't know enough English to negotiate. He spent it the same day on groceries for himself, his wife and their two sons.

Manuel, 38, said he hopes the government approves work permits for people like him.

"I don't want to be a burden, so it just makes sense that I should get a job so I can provide for my family. I got $60 and what did I do? I put it back into the economy."


A day of roofing: $180. Cleaning an apartment: sometimes $50 for two hours, sometimes $50 for four. Shoveling snow: $80 for four hours.

The migrants tick off the sporadic odd jobs that have put cash in their pockets. Some solicit jobs from restaurants and shops, but managers turn them down for not having a permit.

So they come here day after day, the crowd sometimes burgeoning as high as 40, armed with tools and backpacks. They fist-bump greetings and hop around to stay warm. A man named Luis teaches himself English phrases online: How much do you pay? How many people do you need? I know how to paint. I know how to cook. The migrants say they are regularly picked up by Somali Americans and others who don't speak Spanish, necessitating hand signals and translation apps.

"It's hit or miss — it's like winning the lottery," said Timoteo of landing a day gig.

A Spanish-speaking man pulled up asking for one woman to come with him, but the handful of female migrants on the street were too frightened to accept. False alarms abounded: a man at the traffic light inquired about the crowd, but when a migrant showed him on a translator app that they wanted jobs, the motorist apologized that he had nothing for them.

Cesar's peak earnings totaled $700 a month when he worked construction in Ecuador, but he struggled to survive as the economy plummeted. At 43, he trekked through the perilous jungles of the Darién Gap and crossed into Arizona with his teenage son in December.

They stayed for a week at an overflowing homeless shelter in New York. The city has faced a multibillion-dollar crisis as it struggles to follow a legal mandate to provide shelter for all who need it, and is paying for migrants to fly to other destinations. Cesar chose a ticket to Minnesota — the fifth most common destination — and moved into a hotel that Hennepin County is using to shelter homeless families in Brooklyn Park. He heard that he could pick up odd jobs at this corner in Minneapolis' Whittier neighborhood, and began leaving the shelter at 5:45 a.m. to take three bus rides here.

His most pressing aim has been to pay off $10,000 in debt for the coyote who facilitated his journey to the border. Then he'd like to find an apartment and an immigration lawyer. Early on, Cesar received $150 for a day of drywall work. Then a more established Ecuadorian promised him $150 a day for painting an apartment. The man didn't show up the third day to pay him, stiffing Cesar.

Cesar raced to a van at the corner one recent morning, as a driver pointed at two other men to get in. He felt disappointed as the group sped away, but a new van pulled up a few minutes later and waved the pushing crowd back before asking if one of them had a screwdriver.

The lone English speaker stepped up.

"I've got tools in my car, whatever you like to do," he said, and secured the job.

"I'll come back," the driver assured the others. "Next time, next time. Stay away from the car!"

He declined to talk to the Star Tribune, saying, "Go talk to them."

Cesar returned to the sidewalk.

"It feels so bad," he said of yet another near-miss.


Before long, the migrants were all hurtling toward the next car. They surrounded both sides, banging on the windows and shouting, "Amigo, amigo! Open, open!" Again, Cesar wasn't chosen.

Like the others, Cesar found it difficult to endure a bitter cold that he had never encountered in Ecuador. But he saw no other choice than coming here day after day, even if work was scarce. And at least he had some winter clothes; one man stood there in freezing weather without a jacket because he couldn't afford one.

Cesar's notice to appear at the Fort Snelling immigration court is fast approaching, but Cesar doesn't know how he'll file for asylum: "If I don't have work, how am I going to get a lawyer?"

Some of the drivers who stop by offer charity. One handed out $10 bills. Another, a volunteer with the nonprofit Community Bridge, regularly stops by to pass out free meals.

"You can have two if you want — come back and see me if you need more," said the volunteer, Gary Hoffman, as the migrants accepted boxed lunches of chicken, rice, spinach and carrots. Hoffman said that they always take just one. "These … are the most appreciative of people."

A number of men from the corner join a long line of Ecuadorians nearby to wait outside a nonprofit for free groceries once a week. One migrant named Marco said he felt undignified, going there to collect free food "when you're perfectly capable of working. We don't want to be a burden." He said he's eager for summer to come so he can find lucrative roofing jobs.

Manuel, for his part, felt at the mercy of whoever hired him. He estimated one drywall job should pay him $500; the boss only agreed to give him $200, and Manuel knew if he didn't accept, he would lose the opportunity.

As the cold worsened, he returned to the corner with a heavier jacket, but found it was so bulky he couldn't run as fast. And even after Manuel caught a driver's attention, he lost out on a job because he didn't know how to fix cars. Nearby, another motorist kicked two migrants out of the backseat and kept another two for a job, leaving the expelled laborers to wearily trudge down the sidewalk.

"It's a battle on this corner," Manuel said, scanning the street for another car slowing down.

Staff photographer Elizabeth Flores interpreted for this story.