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Mortified, but happy to hire

Orange County communities still wage war on day laborers -- then use them.

December 18, 2007|Gustavo Arellano | Gustavo Arellano is a contributing editor to Opinion, author of the book "¬°Ask a Mexican!" and a staff writer for the OC Weekly.

STOP ME if you've heard this one before. Some time ago, immigrant men invaded our tranquil municipality. As long as they quietly toiled, residents tolerated their presence. But once these hombres went out on the town, people became furious.

"Their numbers, appearances and were

strange and frightening," wrote one observer. Employers had to teach them how to use restrooms; after payday, the men swarmed into stores, frightening customers and merchants. Eventually, the county fathers tired of the hired hands and had the guys shipped back to their home countries, much to the delight of everyone except the workers.

Sounds like a fevered Tom Tancredo dream, no? But the reviled laborers weren't illegal immigrants or even Mexicans; they were about 1,600 Jamaicans who arrived in Orange County during the 1940s at the invitation of farmers.

Refry this anecdote for a bit when considering the war Orange County has waged against day laborers the past couple of years. Costa Mesa kicked it off in 2006 by shuttering a city-run day-laborer center, largely at the behest of Mayor Allan Mansoor. In March, the Lake Forest City Council repealed an anti-solicitation law aimed to drive day laborers away from the town after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit. Mission Viejo and Dana Point passed no-trespassing laws aimed at harassing day laborers after receiving complaints from residents that too many Latino men were congregating near businesses and street corners. In Dana Point, council members allowed anyone to make a citizen's arrests if they saw someone loitering in the city.

A similar skirmish occurred in Laguna Beach, with reversed roles. This time, the City Council fended off a lawsuit filed by anti-immigrant activists that sought to cut off city funding to a day laborer hiring site nestled in beautiful Laguna Canyon, a spot where regular protests against bewildered Latinos draw everyone from gray-haired patriots to young adults sporting Confederate gray caps.

The latest city to join the battle is Orange. Last week, the City Council passed a slew of ordinances that make it nearly impossible for day laborers to find work.

People in Orange cannot solicit on sidewalks next to streets without parking lanes or wave down cars in traffic, on a driveway or on a median. Day laborers can still loll around on private property, but they need the owner's written permission -- and anyone who allows more than five day laborers to find work on their property must apply for a permit under penalty of fines and jail time. Council members complained that the men -- sometimes numbering in the dozens -- urinated in public, intimidated women and ruined the quality of life in town.

In all these cases, day laborer opponents argue that these transient workers take jobs away from citizens and that allowing them to seek work is a de facto endorsement of illegal immigration. But something else fuels their fury. Day laborers in Orange County are an uncomfortable glimpse into the county's true character, walking reminders of the sins this county commits to maintain its status as an economic powerhouse.

One hundred years before Orange County's incorporation, Europeans relied on "foreign" labor to build their new world. Father Junipero Serra used Juanenos to construct his beloved Mission San Juan Capistrano. In the late 1800s, the German founders of Anaheim -- immigrants themselves -- hired Indian and Mexican laborers to dig the ditches that made the city's grape vines grow.

And as orange groves and other crops blossomed across the county, farmers forsook American manpower in favor of imported peons -- first Chinese, then Japanese, but eventually almost exclusively Mexicans, men like my grandfather, who hopped trains as a 12-year-old from central Mexico to Anaheim around 1918 to pick oranges alongside his father.

Businessmen and politicians forged an uneasy understanding with the dark-skinned drudges -- out of sight, out of mind. When workers tried to make their presence known in the form of strikes, the county response was fierce: mass arrests, scabrous newspaper editorials and the threat of deportation even for legal residents.

Orange County's approach to troublesome immigrants is so notorious that no less an authority than labor historian Carey McWilliams became radicalized here. In a 1940 interview, the writer who went on to edit the Nation magazine said: "I hadn't believed stories of such wholesale violation of civil rights until I went down to Orange County to defend a number of farm workers held in jail for 'conspiracy.' When I announced my purpose, the judge said, 'It's no use; I'll find them guilty anyway.' "

Today's day laborers violate the same old covenant -- they dare to be visible.

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