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Laguna's Day Labor Site Saved

Targeted by foes of illegal immigration as well as the state in a land ownership snafu, the hiring operation will continue in a lease deal.

July 13, 2006|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

A Laguna Beach day labor hiring center, slated to close because it was operating illegally on state land, will remain open after an agreement between city and state officials.

Two weeks ago, Caltrans ordered the long-established center to close, saying it was illegally operating on state property along Laguna Canyon Road, which the state hadn't known it owned.

The state Department of Transportation issued the order to close after Eileen Garcia, a Laguna Beach resident and member of the Minuteman Project border patrol group, checked property records and brought it to the state's attention.

Minuteman members and others have regularly protested at that and other day labor sites around Southern California.

State officials said they were unconcerned whether the workers seeking jobs at the Laguna Beach center were illegal or legal immigrants. It was simply a legal liability having the center on state land.

To solve that problem, the city will lease the property for one year from Caltrans at a "fair market" rate, said City Manager Kenneth C. Frank.

That amount has not been determined, but Frank said he did not believe that the land had great value.

During the coming year, the city will determine whether it can buy the parcel from the state, Frank said.

Caltrans spokeswoman Pam Gorniak said the agency was determining whether to consider the property surplus, a first step in selling it.

But the matter is far from over, say Garcia and others who staunchly oppose illegal immigration. They have vowed to conduct a "Shame on Laguna Beach" protest near the site Saturday.

"I'm disappointed, but I'm not surprised," said Garcia. "Any city operating illegally on land that doesn't belong to them is capable of anything."

Minuteman co-founder Jim Gilchrist said his group would look for a way to challenge the lease.

"Laguna Beach wants to be a sanctuary city for illegal immigrants," Gilchrist said. "It's one of several cities that are the source of the illegal immigrant problem in this country."

Rep. John Campbell (R-Irvine) said he would ask U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if there was "any enforcement mechanism" that could be used at the site.

Campbell said undocumented workers often seek jobs in public places, but he added, "The fact that this is on government property makes it a little more egregious."

Lori Haley, a spokeswoman for ICE, says her agency conducts enforcement when it receives information that warrants it, but "the fact that it's state property would not have any effect on enforcement."

For Laguna Beach officials, the issue is not immigration but controlling traffic and prevention of loitering.

Frank, the city manager, said he wasn't saying the center "is right for immigration law or wrong for immigration law. It's just a pragmatic solution. We do not have the practical ability to enforce federal immigration law."

The city gives about $25,000 annually to a nonprofit organization that runs the center.

Dicterow, the mayor, said that because the city can't stop illegal immigration, "if we are going to have a problem, the question is how to best deal with it."

At the center, manager Irma Ronses said the workers were pleased with the agreement to save the operation.

The workers "were very worried because they didn't want to look for work on corners," Ronses said. "They didn't want to have problems. Now it looks like they won't."

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