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New front on day-labor battle opens

Lake Forest will allow a security guard hired by a strip mall's owners to file trespassing reports, clearing the way for O.C. deputies to make arrests.

December 09, 2006|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

In a move bound to spark controversy, Lake Forest city officials have agreed to let property owners pay a security guard to patrol for day laborers who gather at the edge of a strip mall looking for work.

The guard, who would be permitted to patrol a strip mall, an area a half-mile around it and a neighboring industrial area, could file trespassing complaints on behalf of property owners, clearing the way for sheriff's deputies to make arrests.

A similar effort to let security guards look for loitering day laborers in Phoenix was discontinued this month after protests.

Lake Forest Mayor Richard Dixon said he made the proposal to help mostly out-of-town property owners control the throng of men who, for years, have sought jobs on a street corner in Lake Forest.

The conflict between day laborers and citizen groups has increased, putting city officials in the position of finding a way to defuse the situation.

"The day-laborer situation in this state is ... a mess," said Dixon. "From our perspective, this is probably the easiest and simplest way [to], if not completely eliminate our day-laborer issue, limit it to a large degree."

Because a trespassing complaint must be filed by a property owner who witnesses a violation, the City Council agreed in October that a representative -- in this case a security guard -- could file complaints to deputies on behalf of out-of-town owners. Trespassing signs must be posted on the property.

Although the use of security guards in commercial areas is common, using them to monitor day laborers "is somewhat unusual," said Chris Newman, legal program director at the National Day Labor Organizing Network.

Sue Waltman, one of the property owners at the strip mall at El Toro and Jeronimo roads, said other owners were less concerned about illegal immigration than about the men urinating in public, loitering and causing traffic problems by hailing cars.

"This isn't an anti-immigration thing. It's an anti-trespassing deal," Waltman said. "Our problem is not that they are here, but there are a lot of unsavory things that go along with them being here all the time."

Eight property owners will chip in $1,400 a week to pay one security guard, Waltman said. Other property owners will be asked to contribute if the service appears to work, she said.

The security guard, Waltman said, "puts eyes on the problem. The police don't see much of what goes on."

One recent day at the strip mall, most of the day laborers said they lived in Lake Forest and picked up jobs paying $7 to $10 an hour three or four times a week. None was aware of the new ordinance.

Some waiting for work played cards in one corner while others played handball with a tennis ball on the side of a building that includes a convenience store and a pizzeria.

A woman lugging a cooler packed with 100 tamales she said she made at home sold almost all of them for $1 each to the workers in less than an hour. More than four employers showed up in a one-hour period.

"We are here because we are needed. We do the jobs Americans won't do," said Pedro Lopez, 34, a native of Mexico who said he has been at the site nearly every day for five years since entering the country illegally.

"We don't want any problems. We just want to work."

Bob Holtzclaw, a longtime Lake Forest resident, said he was alarmed by the number of day laborers. "It's an eyesore," he said. "This is not the American way of life."

The loudest complaints have mostly come from members of the Minuteman Project, a citizen border patrol group that has become closely identified with the national debate on illegal immigration. Members of the organization have stepped up protests at the Lake Forest site in recent months, shouting at workers and taking photographs of people who hire them. They have also spoken at Lake Forest City Council meetings, expressing frustration with city officials and property owners who they said have responded slowly to the situation.

"What we want there is aggressive enforcement. These people are trespassing on private property and they are causing traffic problems. If they are here illegally, they are also breaking federal law," said Minuteman spokeswoman Robin Hvidston.

Redondo Beach and other cities that sought to ban daylaborer solicitations found their laws were unconstitutional; soliciting work on a public street is a constitutional right, the courts have ruled.

At the same time, day-laborer centers have been targets for the Minuteman organization and other groups. Costa Mesa closed its center in March 2005.

An experiment using private security guards to monitor day laborers ended Dec. 1 in Phoenix after immigrant rights activists protested and threatened to boycott stores that hired guards. The businesses had hired off-duty police for about 10 months.

Arizona immigrant-rights activist Salvador Reza, who organized the protests, said he objected to the use of off-duty police because officers could act "as vigilantes to control us. To us, that was a very dangerous idea."Newman said he was unfamiliar with the new Lake Forest ordinance.

"Cities and towns that have sought as their goal to use police enforcement to rid their towns of day laborers have faced legal obstacles in doing so," he said. "Having dialogue is the better way to go."

Even so, Dixon said he believes that a security guard may resolve the situation in Lake Forest. The guard is not a response to the Minuteman protests, he said, but was developed after discussions with property and business owners.

jennifer.delson@latimes.com

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