Manual labor is tough. Not getting paid for it is tougher.

If an employer says he doesn't owe, or refuses to pay, or simply doesn't respond -- like Estes -- the department will refer a plaintiff to the courts. (While Estes didn't respond to the labor office, he told Westword, "That's a lie -- I paid the man," and then hung up.)

Breslin took her concerns about the department's lack of enforcement ability to the attention of state senator Jennifer Veiga, who says she is looking into the issue, though she would rather give the department more muscle within existing statutory guidelines than through new legislation. "We're meeting to see if we can beef up enforcement or find a way to address the problem," Veiga says. "They have some enforcement ability, and I think part of it is whether they're using it."

But while she and Breslin meet with the department about enforcement, Senator Doug Lamborn and Representative Dave Schultheis are sponsoring a bill that would bar illegal immigrants from using any of the state's labor resources, among other things. "We don't have enough money; we have to draw the line somewhere," Lamborn says. "Also, I'm concerned that if we're overly generous with people who are not here lawfully, we encourage more people to come here unlawfully. Especially in these tight budget times, where we can't do everything that we would like for the people that are here lawfully, it seems like the wrong time to be expanding programs for those who are not here lawfully."

La muchacha: Colleen Breslin assists wronged 
James Glader
La muchacha: Colleen Breslin assists wronged workers.

While that proposal is being fought out in the legislature, El Centro Humanitario is left as the primary resource for helping people recover their wages. El Centro volunteers helped Gutierrez fill out small-claims court forms and walked him through the legal process; Estes ultimately paid him $657, plus about $300 in penalties.

El Centro's limited resources make it difficult to do that for every client; for most, it can only refer their claims to the labor office. As part of the Immigrant Workers' Rights Taskforce, a collaborative statewide effort, Breslin and El Centro are trying to educate workers so they don't get ripped off in the first place. They also want to train more non-lawyer advocates to assist people like Gutierrez through the legal process.

"I felt so bad; I didn't feel like I could trust anyone in the street," Gutierrez says. "I don't have papers. It's easy to fall. But it's different with the center. Sometimes, in the United States, I feel bad around the people, like they don't want me, but not at the center."

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