Dozens of immigrants waited in front of Good Shepherd of the Hills Episcopal Church in Cave Creek on a recent chilly morning. They nursed cups of hot coffee and folded their arms over their chests to stay warm.
Their eyes followed each vehicle passing by on Cave Creek Road, waiting for a driver to turn in and hire them for a day. The church at 6502 E. Cave Creek Road has become an unofficial day labor center for more than 100 immigrants, many of whom are in the country illegally.
It’s also a place where the low-income immigrants can have breakfast every morning, buy inexpensive clothes at the church’s thrift store and obtain medical services they otherwise could not afford.
While the church has been publicly criticized for helping illegal immigrants, the Rev. Glenn Jenks said he doesn’t check the men’s documentation. He said he’s simply providing a service to the poor and to the residents of Cave Creek by taking the men off the street and away from storefronts.
"We’re serving the community," Jenks said on a recent chilly morning in front of the church, as about 40 men waited for work.
When a worker goes on a job, the church gives the employer a card with its phone number and the name of the man hired. If there’s a problem, the employer can complain about the worker, and vice versa.
A worker who is lazy or does a shoddy job is not allowed back to the church. And if an employer is unkind or pays less than $7 an hour, the church turns that employer away next time.
"It’s a way to see that our guys are treated with dignity — the way an employee should be treated," Jenks said. "And, employers are picking up people they can have confidence in."
Although 110 workers regularly go to the church to seek jobs, there are still day laborers standing in front of gas stations and other businesses in Cave Creek.
"You go down to the Circle K, you don’t know who you’re getting," he said. "You don’t know if they’re a child molester or if they’ve got a gun in their pocket."
The church does have its critics, including Don Sorchych, editor of the Sonoran News, a weekly newspaper covering Cave Creek and nearby Carefree.
In his weekly editorials, Sorchych has referred to the immigrants as "illegal invaders" and "vermin" and said they are "rapidly turning the town of Cave Creek into a giant landfill." In a recent editorial, he called the church "illegal alien loving."
He also organized a group of people who went to the church to photograph the day laborers and employers hiring them, zooming in on the employers’ license plates and publishing them in the paper.
Jenks acknowledged his efforts are controversial. But it’s not true that every man at the church is an illegal immigrant, he said. And illegal or not, the workers are looking for jobs and area residents are looking for workers, Jenks said.
Church workers such as 43-year-old Phoenix resident Miguel Hernandez said he wouldn’t know what he would do without the service. He traveled to Arizona about 18 months ago from Obregón in the state of Sonora, Mexico.
He is unable to get his dream job as a chef without documentation and he can’t afford insurance or medical procedures.
Besides getting good work on a daily basis, Hernandez was able to replace three teeth that had fallen out.
The church pays for the workers’ medical services and then accepts cash payments for them.
"Everyone here is good people," Hernandez said in Spanish as he waited for work. "They help us and the employers we work with pay us well."
It was much more difficult for Hernandez to find a job before he started going to the church every morning, he said, adding that he stood in front of Circle K to find work.
At the Circle K, Hernandez said people yelled at him and even chased him away.
"It’s ugly," he said. "I don’t understand. We’re not doing anything. We’re just waiting for work — simply waiting for work."
A Scottsdale man and his wife who recently went to the church to hire a couple of men said they understand the issues involved.
"Basically, these people are against the law — that’s a fact of life," said the man, who asked to remain anonymous because he doesn’t want to "make enemies."
"But they’re here and we should do something about it," he said. "It isn’t whether you’re for or against (illegal immigration). They’re here, and they do good work, and they don’t complain, and contractors love them."
Jenks said more churches should open their doors to immigrants to help them get jobs and take them off the streets.
"This shouldn’t be paid for with tax dollars," he said. "This is the business of the church. . . . And every church has a parking lot."