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Day Laborers, Cities Seek a Way That Will Work

August 29, 2005|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

They've been part of the Southern California landscape for close to four decades: immigrant laborers waiting for work on sidewalks and street corners, swarming drivers as they pull up, ready to move furniture, paint walls, pull weeds, do whatever needs doing.

But now, as the housing boom increases the demand for cheap labor and workers become more organized, the sites where they gather have become a battleground in the widening debate over illegal immigration.

Cities throughout California and around the nation are struggling to cope with the sheer numbers of day laborers, or jornaleros. Critics say the sites not only encourage people to come to the U.S. illegally, but also create traffic jams and are eyesores. Supporters say the workers are simply trying to make an honest living and are crucial to local economies.

But, as cities are discovering, the issue is far more complicated than that. In the same cities where there are protests against the laborers, there is a high demand for their work. And in the same cities where workers are being arrested, their colleagues are volunteering to help businesses remove graffiti and pick up trash.

"Every major city, even smaller cities, are struggling with this," said Victor Narro, project director at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center. "It's become a national issue."

In their search for solutions, municipal leaders must balance the competing demands of residents, businesses, anti-immigration activists and the workers themselves. Adding to the confusion, some have had to heed the courts as well.

Cities have made bold moves, then sometimes suspended or reversed them. Redondo Beach barred day laborers from seeking work on its streets; a judge then blocked the move. Costa Mesa opened a center to match workers with employers, then decided to close it. Burbank required Home Depot to build its own hiring hall, then put the opening on hold.

Recently, in Herndon, Va., the town council approved a publicly funded day laborer center after a contentious hearing that had to be extended from one night to the next. And in Farmingville, N.Y., authorities evicted dozens of immigrants from overcrowded apartments in what advocates say was an attempt to run jornaleros out of town.

City leaders and police officers complain that they have had to make decisions on immigration policy because the federal government has not.

"Local government doesn't exist to drive that kind of policy," said Glendale Police Capt. Mark Distaso. "This is something that needs to be dealt with on a federal level."

Activists against illegal immigration are pressuring local, as well as federal, officials to crack down. "Everywhere you turn, people are passing the buck on these issues, and the American people are fed up with it," said Joseph Turner, who runs the group Save Our State.

Day laborers began gathering in California in the 1960s after the end of the bracero guest-worker program, said UCLA professor Abel Valenzuela, who has conducted numerous studies on workers. Their numbers have multiplied in recent years, with the expansion of part-time work and the influx of immigrants. He estimated that there are as many as 35,000 people seeking work at hundreds of sites in California.

The majority of day laborers are undocumented immigrants from Mexico or Central America. Most are young and male, although a small number are women. They are a varied group: educated and illiterate, married and single, recently arrived and well-established. Some are legal immigrants who have become skilled workers with business cards, cellphones and regular employers.

Home Depot has been thrust onto center stage in the controversy because the workers often gather outside its stores and in its parking lots, despite a nosolicitation policy. Many employers, small-scale contractors and individual homeowners pick up supplies inside -- and laborers outside.

"We are not the solution, nor are we the problem," said company real estate director Jeff Nichols.

The company has posted signs to discourage workers at some stores -- and provided supplies to help cities build hiring halls near others.

Burbank officials thought Home Depot should do more.

When the company sought last year to build a 115,000-square-foot store on the city's eastern edge, officials made constructing a center for day laborers a condition of the permit. Then they started drafting an ordinance that would encourage use of the center by prohibiting laborers from soliciting work on sidewalks.

Burbank City Manager Mary J. Alvord said she never expected the firestorm the proposed center would ignite. City Council meetings were contentious. Residents accused the city of catering to illegal immigrants. The council was split.

Now, as legal challenges to other cities' ordinances make their way through the courts, Burbank is in limbo. The Home Depot is scheduled to open in January, but the city plans to hold off on the opening of the center.

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