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Day Labor Site Mandate Riles D.C.

Burbank's order that Home Depot build a hiring center prompts action on Capitol Hill.

April 23, 2006|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When the city of Burbank made Home Depot build a day labor hiring center as a condition of opening a store, it generated howls of protest.

It also helped set off a reaction 3,000 miles away -- on Capitol Hill.

Now, Congress is poised to prevent other communities from making similar demands. The ban, which is likely to be part of any immigration overhaul package that emerges from Congress, could affect Los Angeles, where a City Council member has proposed an ordinance that could require large home improvement stores to provide day labor sites.

Day laborers have tended to congregate at home improvement stores, hoping to be hired by contractors and homeowners. This has prompted some communities to build centers to coordinate hiring and to keep the laborers, many of whom are illegal immigrants, from interfering with traffic.

Burbank has gone further, requiring the store to build the center itself. But in Washington, some lawmakers say that requiring a business to build or fund a day labor center is also, in essence, demanding that they abet illegal immigration.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) called it "an example of the extent to which we're making a mockery of the law." Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) said it represented "unwarranted interference by governmental entities with the rights of businesses to use and operate their private property."

Cannon succeeded in attaching the prohibition to a major immigration bill that the House approved last year. The ban has also been included in immigration legislation now before the Senate. As a result, it stands a good chance of being included in a final bill, should one emerge from Congress.

Staff members in several congressional offices said Home Depot had talked with their offices about the issue.

"Home Depot has come in to see us as well," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting where the measure on day labor sites was added to immigration legislation.

Home Depot declined to comment on the legislation or its lobbying.

In Burbank, it was not only required to build a day laborer center but contribute $94,000 a year toward its operation. The center, which opened in January in a Home Depot parking lot, serves an average of 35 laborers a day, said a spokesman for Catholic Charities of Los Angeles, which operates the facility.

The ban working through Congress would prevent local and state governments from requiring companies, "as a condition of conducting, continuing, or expanding a business ... [to] provide, build, fund, or maintain a shelter, structure, or designated area for use by day laborers at or near its place of business."

Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor, supported putting the measure in the Senate's immigration bill. "This creates a potential liability issue for those businesses, and I really question the practice," she said in a statement.

The provision has drawn opposition from immigrant rights groups as well as from some local officials who say that requiring large home improvement stores to provide day laborer centers addresses public complaints about workers gathering on street corners, without burdening taxpayers.

Without centers, "most undocumented workers just find another place to go," said Eric Gutierrez, legislative staff attorney in the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund's Washington office.

Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks is sponsoring the ordinance that would put new requirements on large home improvement stores. A spokeswoman for Parks said the proposal would not necessarily compel new stores to build day labor centers, but it would require that they "find some way to regulate day laborers on their sites."

Home Depot has opposed Parks' proposal. "The day laborer issue is complex, and a solution that does not take into account the characteristics of each community and the impacts associated with each store is inappropriate," a company representative said in a letter to City Council members last year.

Parks also persuaded the City Council to unanimously oppose the federal effort to prevent communities from placing day laborer requirements on home improvement stores. In a statement, he said the legislation "clearly violates the basic principle of home rule" and would make it difficult for cities to hold businesses "accountable for nuisances they create."

The legislation would not bar cities from using federal funds to operate day laborer hiring centers, as Los Angeles now does with $1.2 million of its federal community development block grant funds.

Parks said he is concerned with stores that attract "a potential eyesore and nuisance within the community and leave the city to foot the bill."

But Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, responded: "The business does not create the eyesore. Rather, the city and state have, because they refuse to work cooperatively with the federal government to penalize employers and remove illegal aliens."

Burbank City Councilman Todd Campbell contends that while the day laborer center may serve illegal immigrants, it also serves legal residents.

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