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Reconsidering Job Center's Closure

The Costa Mesa City Council may decide tonight if it will change its mind on shutting down the site where day laborers find work.

April 05, 2005|Rachana Rathi | Times Staff Writer

The Costa Mesa City Council is expected to decide tonight whether to reopen debate on the planned June 30 closure of the Costa Mesa Job Center, a publicly funded facility for day laborers that opened in 1988.

Shortly after the council voted in mid-March to close the center at Placentia Avenue and 17th Street, Councilwoman Katrina Foley requested that the issue be revisited, saying workers and employers who use the center weren't properly notified, the item on the council's agenda had been misleading, and the suggested alternatives for job placement were poorly researched.

The council voted 3 to 2 to close the center, with Foley and Councilwoman Linda W. Dixon in the minority. Mayor Allan Mansoor, Mayor Pro Tem Gary Monahan and Councilman Eric Bever voted for closure.

"The decision was made in haste, without having adequate research or a plan for the consequences for closing the center," Foley said.

She said she was concerned by the legality of the city's job-solicitation ordinance and the cost of reassigning police officers to cope with job solicitation on the street.

The facility, created to get dayworkers off city streets and out of parks, has been at the center of debate over government's role in job assistance and illegal immigration since its opening. There have been numerous attempts to close the site, which is considered the first of its kind in the nation. It has been used as a model for cities throughout Southern California.

The debate began anew when the City Council voted March 15 to close the center, although the agenda item had said only that the council would "provide direction to staff" of the Costa Mesa Job Center. Day laborers and employers who use the site, center staff and immigration advocates say the agenda item was misleading.

Such job sites have been lauded as a cost-effective way to reduce traffic and quality-of-life problems in cities with large dayworker populations, as well as a dignified way for workers to find jobs.

Critics say job centers attract illegal immigrants, encourage unlawful employment and cheat government of tax revenue because day laborers are often paid in cash.

Ira Mellman, a spokesman in Los Angeles for the immigration watchdog group Federation for American Immigration Reform, said dayworker job centers were mostly used by illegal immigrants and took jobs from citizens.

"They're spending more than $100,000 a year to operate a job site for the benefit of people who are in the country illegally, prohibited from working in this country and undermining legitimate businesses in the community," Mellman said.

Mark Taylor, a management analyst with the city's recreation division who oversees the job center, said the center didn't track how many illegal immigrants used the site.

"We're not the employer; we're not verifying that information. It's up to the employer or contractor to verify their status in the country, deduct taxes," said Taylor, adding that day laborers must provide valid identification to register with the center. Accepted forms of identification are a passport, California driver's license or identification card, Social Security card, immigration visa, U.S. birth certificate or work permit.

"It's really sad the day laborers will lose their center just because they believe the center is helping undocumented immigrants when they don't even know if that is true or not," said Pablo Alvarado, national coordinator for the National Day Labor Organizing Network. "The day laborer situation is not the avenue to discuss the immigration-related concerns anti-immigrant groups have."

Mansoor said this isn't an immigration issue. "It's silly to say it's an anti-immigrant issue," Mansoor said. "The main focus of government should be public safety and infrastructure, not job placement."

Reasons to close the center, he said, include fewer complaints of loitering from Westside businesses and residents and the $103,000 per year it costs to operate the center.

But Foley said closing the job center would be costly for the city. The city would save $24,000 a year on rent, she said, but would still employ the two staff members who operate the center.

Police Chief John Hensley said the department would reallocate two officers from their current duties to deal with traffic and loitering problems created by the site's closure. One officer costs the city about $100,000 a year, he said.

The city has received more than 40 e-mails on both sides of the issue, according to Julie Folcik, deputy city clerk.

Foley also said the city had not considered the legal ramifications and costs of closing the center. She said the city may not legally be able to enforce an ordinance that bans job solicitation on city streets or parks and within 25 feet of a home or business.

Alvarado said representatives from the Mexican American Legal Defense Education Fund would challenge the city in court if the center closes.

"If they enforce the ordinance, they're going to spend a lot of money defending themselves," he said.

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