Immigrant Workers Pack Hall to Oppose Job-Hunting Curbs

Times Staff Writer

More than 350 immigrant laborers packed a meeting hall at La Purisima Catholic Church in Orange on Wednesday night and told Mayor Don E. Smith of their concerns about two proposed city laws that would make it much more difficult for them to find work.

One of several men and women who spoke on behalf of the workers was Ruben Reyes, 43, who came to Orange three months ago from the state of Hidalgo in Mexico.

"We came here to work honorably," said Reyes, dressed in work boots, cheap brown pants and a black T-shirt. "Now I ask myself, 'Where can we go to find work? How can we get it without a penny in our pocket,' " Reyes said in Spanish.

The meeting was requested by church leaders after parishioners expressed concern about the new laws, said Robin Blackwell, coordinator of the Orange County Coalition for Immigrant Rights.

One ordinance would make it illegal for anyone to solicit employment on a public street or sidewalk in the eastern part of the city--the exact boundaries have not yet been established--between 6 a.m. and noon. The other ordinance would prohibit workers from seeking jobs in private parking lots, once the owners of the lots post signs warning laborers of the new law. Both measures would carry a maximum penalty of a $500 fine or six months in jail.

The City Council gave preliminary approval to the two ordinances last month. They are scheduled to come before the council for final approval Sept. 19. If approved, they would take effect 30 days later.

Wednesday night, Maria L. Vega, 53, asked the mayor: "If I met you in the street and asked you for a dollar for something to eat, would you put me in jail? Would you fine me $500? That would be an injustice."

Smith and Luis Rodriguez, senior assistant city attorney, were clearly speaking a different language than that of the crowd.

"The ordinances are geared to the question of appropriate activity," said Rodriguez, after Smith deferred to him on a question. "It's the same thing as zoning; if you have uses next to each other, those uses are not necessarily compatible."

At one point during the meeting, Smith told the crowd they were "well-behaved." At another point while trying to establish that he, too, had an immigrant background, Smith told the audience that he was a 10th-generation Mayflower descendant.

Smith said the city plans to open a hiring hall on a lot on McPherson Road and that he hopes to do so before the ordinances take effect.

"That is a concern we want to look at," Smith said.

But the hiring hall would be available only to legal residents. A majority of those attending Wednesday's meeting were in the country illegally, according to show of hands requested by the Rev. Jim Overend, who called for the meeting.

"It doesn't seem like this is a fruitful exercise of city government," Overend said.

For years, men have gathered on corners and in the shopping center parking lots along East Chapman Avenue each day, hoping for a day's work with a construction, landscaping or other manual labor crew. Typically, they are paid about $5 an hour, in cash. Sometimes the casual jobs lead to more permanent employment; other times the men are promised pay at the end of the week but then stiffed by shady employers.

Residents and business owners have complained that the large crowds--sometimes as many as 300 to 400 men--drive customers away and create litter and traffic problems. Border Patrol agents have raided the area on numerous occasions and city officials have tried to solve the problem by stopping motorists and pedestrians for minor violations and by turning over any illegal aliens to immigration authorities.

But their efforts have met with only limited--and temporary--success.

Last year, La Purisima Church was the scene of one of the more memorable events in the ongoing campaign to clear out the workers. During an immigration sweep, several men ran into the church to avoid capture and were arrested in the midst of a morning mass. The incident elicited a storm of criticism, and the INS eventually reviewed its policy and instructed its agents not to follow suspected illegal aliens into churches unless there were exceptional circumstances.

Other cities have grappled with the problem as well.

Costa Mesa has adopted a similar anti-solicitation ordinance, which includes a provision that makes the mere intent to seek employment in certain areas of the city illegal. That city, however, has also established a hiring hall for day laborers. But it is available only to those workers who can prove legal residency.

Laguna Beach has also set up a hiring area, on Laguna Canyon Road, and Dana Point is establishing a telephone job bank for casual laborers.

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