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Laguna's labor lost

July 07, 2006

A "JUST GET RID OF THEM" approach to illegal immigrants doesn't usefully change anything -- not as long as there are people looking for a job, almost any job, and employers hungry for eager and readily available workers. That's true on the national stage, and it's true in the closer-at-hand theater of Laguna Beach.

There, resident Eileen Garcia, who belongs to the border vigilante group the Minuteman Project, is savoring a short-term victory after she discovered the city's day-labor hiring center is actually located on Caltrans property in Laguna Canyon. The fruit of her activism was a letter from Caltrans demanding that the city deliver a plan for closing or moving the center.

Garcia complains that the center "wasn't done to benefit Americans." Actually, that's untrue. The hiring center was the city's solution to homeowners' complaints about immigrants who congregated in well-heeled residential neighborhoods to solicit work. And for the most part, it worked. The canyon site is near building supply businesses that draw the contractors likely to need temporary workers, and it's not next to any residential areas.

It's also one of the better-run sites for day laborers. Fences keep the job seekers within a defined area and provide a safe space for cars to pull in. An orange-vested employee from a nonprofit group maintains order and fairness. Helpful as all this is, the city opens itself to valid criticism that it is using taxpayer money to aid potentially illegal activity.

Laguna officials also deserve a public dressing-down for cavalierly placing fences, toilets, a trailer and the potential liability of a jobs operation on land that doesn't belong to them. This, after all, is the town that wouldn't permit a utilities hookup to a house that had been painted the wrong shade of off-white.

Though Garcia has legitimate concerns about illegal immigration's drain on local coffers, it's unclear what, if anything, she has accomplished long term. What she wants, she says, is for the city to stop paying more than $25,000 a year to support the center and spend it instead on local charities.

But if the city buys or leases the land, as it's interested in doing, or has to find other property for the center, its costs will go up, not down. If it refuses to have a center at all, that won't somehow make immigrants go back to their native countries. Instead, they'll return to the town's streets, making homeowners unhappy and raising policing expenses.

As this dilemma-by-the-beach shows, there are no quick, one-sided solutions to a situation as complex and economically rooted as illegal immigration. An apt local lesson in national politics.

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