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Merchants Say Day Laborers Are Driving Business Away

Times Staff Writer

About 5 o’clock every weekday morning, Pedro, a 23-year-old refugee from El Salvador, boards a bus in Lakewood for a 1 1/2-hour commute to Artesia Boulevard in Redondo Beach.

About an hour later and 20 miles away, Juan, a 26-year-old refugee from Guatemala, gets into a car with his brother in Inglewood and drives through Hawthorne and Lawndale en route to the same Artesia Boulevard corner.

Pedro and Juan, with little but their language and Central American heritage in common, are two of several dozen Latinos from throughout the Los Angeles area who migrate each morning to Redondo Beach in search of a day’s work.

The two men are also part of what many merchants on Artesia Boulevard describe as an intolerable nuisance that has plagued the busy commercial strip for the past six months. The merchants say the workers scare away customers, urinate on sidewalks, become drunk in public and sometimes destroy property.

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Breakfast Business Declines

“In the morning we had a lot of breakfast business, but now we practically have none,” said Helen Belis, who runs Louis Burgers fast-food restaurant with her husband. “A lot of the women say they are afraid to walk because they might get mugged. The workers urinate around the building, they scream and whistle at the people.”

Lynne Baker, president of the North Redondo Beach Business Assn., said more than 40 business owners have complained to the association about the workers. Merchants “are saying that they don’t take afternoon walks like they used to because there is a significant odor from the urination problem,” she said.

The men, most of whom police say are undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America, line a five-block expanse of Artesia Boulevard near Rindge Lane for about three hours each morning. When cars and pickup trucks stop, the workers quickly negotiate a wage with the driver and then ride off for the day. The day laborers typically earn between $40 and $50 in cash for eight hours of work--much more than they could make at a steady job offering minimum wage, they say.

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The makeshift, curbside employment center, which both workers and police say is used heavily by construction-related businesses in search of cheap labor, has become somewhat of an institution in Redondo Beach. For years, the workers congregated in a nearby residential neighborhood at Marshall Field and Rindge lanes. In April, the men moved to Artesia Boulevard after neighborhood complaints led to a crackdown by police and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Pay Is Higher

Workers like Juan and Pedro say they travel long distances to Redondo Beach because employers generally pay more than those at other casual-labor sites in the Los Angeles area. The numerous development projects under way in the area also offer a greater guarantee that jobs will be available, they said.

But last week, in an effort to force the workers to move once again, Baker asked the City Council to prohibit parking and stopping in the early morning on Artesia between Blossom Lane and Vail Avenue. Area business owners hope the prohibition will discourage potential employers from stopping to pick up workers--thus compelling them to seek a new location.

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The City Council honored the request, and the Police Department is working with the state Department of Transportation (Artesia Boulevard is a state highway) to establish the parking restrictions and come up with a permit system that will exempt local businesses. City officials estimate that it will take two weeks to post the restrictions.

The business association is also having no-loitering and no-trespassing signs printed so merchants can post them in their windows. Without the signs, police say, officers cannot cite people who loiter on private property.

Redondo Beach Police Sgt. John Nelson, who oversees the city’s effort to monitor the day workers, said police have arrested 12 of them since early August for public drunkenness and urinating in public. Three of those workers, he said, were also charged with resisting arrest after they began to fight with police officers.

Nelson said many of the workers have no form of identification, are difficult to keep track of and end up returning to the boulevard the day after being released by authorities. The laborers tell police officers they need the money, he said.

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Hard to Discourage

“Last week we arrested one from El Salvador,” Nelson said. “I told him not to come back because he had no documentation, he was drinking and was constantly intoxicated. He told me, ‘I need work. I am coming back. You can take me to jail, but I am going to come back.’ ”

Most of the 50 or so men who congregate on Artesia Boulevard at any given time, however, have not committed a crime and are waiting on the sidewalk legally, Nelson said. The workers have a right to use public sidewalks and they cannot be physically removed unless they violate the law, he said.

Several of the men waiting for jobs at Artesia and Rindge one day last week said they believed the complaints from local businesses can be traced to a few unruly men. The laborers criticized the city’s new crackdown because it affects all of them indiscriminately.

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“There are some people who drink and smoke joints and create trouble for themselves and for all of us,” said Juan, who said he has a wife and two children in Inglewood and relatives in El Salvador to whom he sends money. “I have to pay rent and I have to support my kids. I have not caused trouble.”

Racism Claimed

Pedro, who is single and comes to Redondo Beach because he enjoys construction work, said police and local merchants should seek out the troublemakers and leave the other men alone. He said the decision to implicate all of them is racist.

“A lot of us are Hispanic and I think people around here don’t like us for that,” he said. “That seems to be a big reason for all of this.”

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But Baker, of the business association, denied that the group’s call for action stems from racial reasons. She said the association has not notified the Immigration and Naturalization Service about the problem because of fears that the men would be deported.

“I do have much empathy for these people,” she said. “A number of them have spent a lot of money to get here. This is not meant to be any kind of affront to the Spanish or Mexican population. It is an effort to have an accommodating environment for good business.”

Pamphlets to Be Printed

Baker said some association members had discussed the possibility of constructing a facility--complete with restrooms--for the workers, but decided it would be too expensive and might attract even more casual laborers to Redondo Beach. She said the association will print pamphlets in Spanish advising the workers that the merchants have asked police to enforce the trespassing and loitering laws.

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Sgt. Nelson also denied that racism had anything to do with the Police Department’s decision to patrol the area and issue citations.

“We are not targeting them because they are a minority or because they are undocumented workers,” Nelson said. “We would monitor any group that generates the kinds of calls we get from that area.” Nelson said he receives complaints from merchants, customers and area residents daily.

Nelson said police have been in touch with the immigration service about getting help to control the problem. The Redondo Beach Police Department is also reconsidering its policy not to arrest workers for being in the country illegally, he said.

“For the most part, the people who congregate are law-abiding and hard-working people who are here to make some money to send back to their families so they can live a little better,” he said. “But the bad apple in the barrel spoils the rest. That is the situation we have.”

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