LAGUNA BEACH — They stand in a foothill clearing, these mostly Mexican and Central American descendants of Aztecs and Mayans and Spanish conquistadors. Their hands are callused, their faces weathered.
And they wait long hours for strangers to drive up and offer them work, usually hard manual jobs that pay less than minimum wage. But often, the people who pass by the dayworkers, many of them undocumented migrants, have something else in mind besides employment: They shout taunts and epithets and give the finger.
"That's what we go through every day," said one worker. "But you have to take it. Either that or go hungry, so you take it." The Laguna Beach Cross Cultural Task Force wants to change this harsh scene on Laguna Canyon Road near downtown by getting $50,000 to create a hiring hall that would be a safer, more dignified place for the workers and prospective employers to meet.
A hiring hall, say task force members, also would serve as a resource center offering day care and English classes, among other services.
But so far, amid the anti-immigrant political climate, the task force is finding only rejection and frustration.
"We're fighting an unpopular cause right now," said activist and task force member Alice Graves. "We're beating our heads up against the wall trying to find sources of money."
David Beck, a literature instructor at Cal State Long Beach who writes the grant applications for the task force, said that since July he has sent applications to foundations such as the Fluor Foundation in Irvine, Costa Mesa's Argyros Foundation, and the Ueberroth Family Foundation in Laguna Beach, "but nothing has come of it."
"Undoubtedly," he said, "they get inundated with all kinds of requests. Day laborers represent a difficult political situation and foundations don't take chances."
But at least one of the foundations approached by the task force said the political climate had nothing to do with its request being turned down.
"We have very specific guidelines and (the task force's petition) does not fall into any of our categories," said Deborah Land, spokeswoman for the Fluor Corp., parent company to the Fluor Foundation.
Land said the Fluor Foundation has established four specific areas for funding: education, health and human services, culture and arts, and public and civic affairs.
Politics, Land said, "has nothing to do with our selection process."
Only one organization, the Fieldstone Foundation in Newport Beach, is considering a grant for the hiring hall, Beck said, adding that the task force has been asking for $5,000 to $10,000 grants.
Getting a helping hand from the city of Laguna Beach doesn't appear promising, according to the task force and city officials.
Council member Robert F. Gentry said that now, just a few months after a devastating fire caused roughly $400 million in damage to the community, "I'm not sure where we would find resources" to support a job center.
"Money is going to be a real problem because of the firestorm," he said.
However, he advises the task force to put together a proposal, lobby hard and build community support to get public funding.
Graves acknowledged that the task force hasn't approached the city for funding because of Laguna's financial limitations. However, she said, "we might end up (asking the city for funds) anyway."
So far, the task force, a grass-roots organization trying to bridge the cultural gap between the Anglo population and minorities, has collected only about $1,000 in about five months, far from the amount needed.
Most of that money, said Graves, a Utah native who has lived in Orange County for most of her 62 years, was collected at a Mexican Independence Day fund-raiser in September.
While the task force struggles to get day laborers off the dirt lot, other communities in Orange County have successful job centers for migrants.
Costa Mesa City Manager Allan L. Roeder speaks glowingly of his city's 5-year-old job center, which serves an average of 755 people a week, of whom 200 obtain jobs.
More importantly, Roeder said, "the best benefit has been a reduction of complaints in terms of people congregating on street corners soliciting employment."
The Costa Mesa job center and another in Orange are publicly funded. A third one in Brea was supported by the city but recently became privately funded.
Roeder said Costa Mesa spends $110,000 a year to keep the center going, but city leaders feel the expense is worth it. "Frankly, it has worked pretty well," he said.
Back in Laguna Beach, the proposed job center has encountered opposition, and migrants have sparked controversy.
Robert Mosier, president of the Laguna Beach Taxpayers Assn., said "my personal feeling is that the situation of the dayworkers should be handled countywide and not be concentrated only on a few coastal cities."