Caltrans ordered a longtime Laguna Beach day labor center to close Friday, saying it was illegally operating on state property, land that the state didn't even know it owned.
The state Department of Transportation issued the order after a Laguna Beach resident who is a member of the Minuteman Project border patrol group checked property records and brought the information forward as part of a protest against the center.
"What they were doing on that property is illegal, and it wasn't done to benefit Americans," said Eileen Garcia, the Minuteman member. "If the Girl Scouts of America had set up pup tents there, they would have been run off a long time ago."
This is the second day labor center in Orange County to close recently. Costa Mesa closed its center last year as its City Council took several measures to limit services to its burgeoning immigrant population.
The centers and other areas where day laborers gather informally have been targeted for protests by anti-illegal immigrant groups throughout Southern California.
The Laguna Day Worker Center on Laguna Canyon Road opened nearly seven years ago and received about $25,000 annually from the city.
State officials said the order to close the center had nothing to do with immigration politics.
"There's a concern about public safety and liability," said James Pinheiro, Caltrans deputy director of traffic operations and maintenance. "We knew the center was there. We didn't know it was on our property."
Garcia, who has protested near the worker center with hundreds of others on several occasions in the last year, said she decided earlier this week to check maps at the Irvine Caltrans office.
Officials who helped her find the materials were surprised when they found a deed showing that the Irvine Co. had given the one-third-acre parcel to the state in 1951.
Pinheiro said state law does not allow use of the property for anything other than "to facilitate the state highway."
No permits were issued to put a mobile office or fences on the site, he said. The office is owned by the Cross Cultural Council, a nonprofit organization.
Irma Ronses, coordinator of the day laborer center, said her group received permission from the city to set up the office but at some point learned the property belonged to the state.
Laguna Beach City Manager Kenneth C. Frank did not return repeated phone calls. Assistant City Manager John Pietig declined to comment.
The Caltrans decision angered a majority of the City Council. Mayor Steve Dicterow said the state agency, as well as the Minuteman Project, took action "that will hurt the residents of Laguna Beach."
Before the workers center opened off the state highway, those looking for temporary jobs went into neighborhoods to search for them. "Now we have to deal with the fact that we don't have the resources to deal with a potentially dangerous situation that will exist whether we like it or not," Dicterow said.
The City Council will discuss the issue next week and determine if it can buy the property, said Pam Gorniak, Caltrans public information officer.
In the meantime, Minuteman Project supporters are enjoying their victory.
"The Minuteman Project stands to bring public awareness to blatant law breaking that is going on in our society, to our lawmakers and bureaucrats who should have been on this years ago," said Minuteman co-founder Jim Gilchrist. "It takes an average Jane Citizen, a Minuteman, to bring attention to this."