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More Cities Turn to Hiring Halls to Solve Day Laborer Problems


At first, the city of Orange resorted to force to try to stop day laborers from congregating along East Chapman Avenue.

In an all-out assault three years ago, the Orange police arrested hundreds of the mostly Latino laborers on misdemeanor violations and turned over almost all of them to the U.S. Border Patrol for deportation. The next day, laborers again flocked to Chapman Avenue.

These days, the city is planning a gentler approach to the problem of day laborers, whose presence has drawn complaints from local residents and businesses. Last week, the City Council voted to open a hiring hall to match laborers with jobs.

By so doing, Orange joins a growing number of Orange County cities which, after trying everything else to discourage growing congregations of day laborers, have reconciled themselves to living with them and opened hiring halls to get them off the streets.

But the halls are widely diverse in operation and none has succeeded in ridding the streets entirely of day laborers. Some of them also create the same traffic congestion that prompted complaints about the workers in the first place.

"One of the obvious limitations of such a hiring hall plan is that this is difficult to do without simply moving the 'problem' from one geographic location to another," said Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, in a report to local cities last year.

"Complaints about workers rushing up to vehicles may continue. Also, it is very difficult to control employers and those seeking employment. They often eventually drift back to the original pickup site."

City officials, though, say that hiring halls are better than having nothing at all.

"It is a win-win situation for everyone involved," said Karen Nobrega, assistant to the city manager of Orange. "It's effective for business owners who complain about large groups congregating. Employers have a central location that they can drive through. And it is a good place for the laborers because the employers are there."

Cities, too, are trying to learn from each other's experiences.

The city of Costa Mesa started Orange County's hiring hall trend in October, 1988, as the worsening economies of Latin America and other factors propelled hundreds of workers onto street corners throughout Southern California.

Since then, Laguna Beach has established an outdoor hiring hall; Dana Point began a telephone placement service, and Brea plans to open a hall this spring. All of these programs are operated at city expense.

Orange officials expect to open their hall on March 26 and to pattern it after Costa Mesa's, where only legal residents of the United States are welcome. And like both Costa Mesa and Dana Point, Orange has also outlawed solicitation of jobs on the street.

"It won't solve the problem 100% but we think it's the right way," Orange Mayor Don E. Smith said.

But if Costa Mesa's experience is any indication, Orange may run into trouble.

Costa Mesa is fighting two lawsuits brought by human rights groups challenging the constitutionality of its day-laborer ordinance. Both suits are pending in Orange County Superior Court.

And by excluding workers without green cards, work permits or other documents showing legal residency, the Costa Mesa plan literally is leaving some workers out in the cold.

Despite the city ordinance and near-freezing temperatures one morning this past week, some two dozen Latino men stood shivering in Lions Park--directly across the street from the Costa Mesa Police Department--as they have done for countless mornings in search of work.

"We are here because it is a necessity," said Abraham Martinez, 41, an undocumented immigrant who sends money home to his wife and two children in Mexico City. "If I don't make money for my family, they don't eat."

At the Costa Mesa Job Center about a mile away, more than two dozen legal immigrants waited patiently as contractors drifted through to pick up workers. The jobs are doled out by lottery. Although the workers said finding work is much easier through a hiring hall, they sympathized with the others such as Martinez.

" All of us need to eat," Pedro Estrada, a 56-year-old immigrant from the Mexican state of Michoacan, said with an expansive sweep of his arms. "They need to open the doors of this center to everyone."

"Yeah, it's really sad," agreed Christina Sanchez, coordinator of the Costa Mesa Job Center. "But it's the city's rules and we have to follow them."

But U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials, under criticism by some cities for not doing more about day laborers, tout the Costa Mesa plan as a national model.

Donald B. Looney, INS deputy district director in Los Angeles, said the program helps legal residents and discourages illegal ones. He predicted that undocumented workers eventually would drift away as employers become increasingly reluctant to hire them.

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