Members of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles said Wednesday they had established an "emergency hot line" where day laborers can call for legal help when they are confronted by police or immigration agents at their street-corner hiring sites.
The immigration activists have dubbed the hot line "Aguas, La Migra! " which translates roughly as, "Look out, the Immigration Service is coming!"
Coalition members claim that day laborers--many of them undocumented immigrants--are often victims of police harassment. The hot line volunteers will respond to the workers' calls by sending attorneys to document police activity.
"The police have been cruising, stopping people," said Susan Alva, an attorney with the coalition. "It's basically harassment and intimidation."
Volunteers distributed wallet-size cards Wednesday morning with the hot line's phone number to laborers at Santa Monica Boulevard and Berendo Street in Hollywood, one of Los Angeles' busiest street-corner hiring sites. About 100 men gather there each morning to find work.
Job seekers and immigrant activists said there is a nearly constant police presence at the intersection, where officers routinely disperse the workers and cite them for loitering.
A Los Angeles Police Department spokesman, however, said officers were only responding to reports of day laborers blocking traffic and gathering in front of businesses and on the lawns of private homes.
"We don't harass people," said Officer Roger Mora. "We merely respond to citizen complaints where they gather, from store owners and merchants. . . . We have to maintain order."
Laborers at the Hollywood intersection, like Jose Bustamante, a 37-year-old Salvadoran immigrant and bricklayer, said he would use the telephone line often.
"When I come to work here, I'm always afraid that I'll get a ticket (for loitering)," Bustamante said."The ticket is $28 and I'm always afraid about paying it, especially when I don't have work."
The coalition's hot line is not the first to address the problems created by large groups of immigrant laborers searching for work.
Last week, a member of the Topanga Town Council said the group had established its own telephone hot line to report suspected illegal immigrants and the people who hire them to the authorities.
The announcement angered immigrant rights activists, who said they feared Topanga Canyon residents would use the hot line to single out Latino workers for discrimination.
"It's outrageous! It's like the Topanga Gestapo!" said Celia Mata of the immigrant coalition. "These men are trying to find work. Let's find a different solution. Calling the (U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service) is not going to make the men go away. . . . They'll just come back."
But Town Council Vice President Marty Brastow said Wednesday that the hot line was not aimed at reporting illegal immigrants to the INS, but rather alerting Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies and fire officials to the presence of mountain camps, which are inhabited mostly by immigrant workers. The camps, Brastow said, have become serious fire hazards in the dry brush of the Santa Monica Mountains.
"We don't care if they're black, brown, green or whatever," Brastow said of the camp inhabitants. "It's a fire hazard."
Town Council Secretary Jan Moore added that the council has received about 15 calls from irate immigrant activists criticizing the Topanga hot line and accusing the council of racism.
"I'm not a racist. I'm a member of the ACLU," she said. "People who I don't even know are calling me names."