Two Agoura Hills ordinances that bar day laborers from seeking work have created a "racially inflamed" atmosphere in which sheriff's deputies abuse and discriminate against immigrant laborers and others of Latino appearance, a coalition of civil rights groups alleged in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The suit against the city of Agoura Hills, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Jack In The Box restaurant chain was filed in Van Nuys Superior Court on behalf of 11 day laborers who commute from the inner city to an informal hiring area at a suburban shopping center near the Ventura Freeway.
The coalition--which includes the American Civil Liberties Union and several immigrant rights groups--alleges that city ordinances passed this year against soliciting work in the street and in commercial areas violate rights of free speech and assembly that are guaranteed in the state Constitution.
Sheriff's deputies have verbally and physically abused laborers, citing them indiscriminately even when the men are picked up by employers with whom they previously arranged jobs, lawyers said.
The suit also accuses management at a Jack In The Box restaurant at the shopping center of denying service to laborers and two other plaintiffs who are Latino activists working with the laborers.
"Latinos, or those who appear to be Latino, have been arrested, criminally prosecuted, harassed, assaulted, humiliated, or ordered to leave the city . . . while waiting for buses, eating at a local fast-food restaurant or patronizing other businesses," the suit said. "The atmosphere is such that any Latino-appearing person who walks or stands in the city of Agoura Hills now faces the very real danger of arrest or worse."
The presence of dozens of day laborers in the upper middle-class city of Agoura Hills has sparked increasing tension. Merchants and government officials, including Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), say the men hurt business at the shopping center because they are unruly and intimidating.
Immigration officials went to the site recently to announce a regionwide crackdown on day laborers and their employers, and Immigration and Naturalization Service agents arrested eight suspected illegal immigrants in a raid last week.
City officials said Wednesday that they had not seen the suit. But City Manager Dan Carmany rejected allegations of discrimination, saying the laws were passed to regulate a situation that was out of control.
He said the city has budgeted $10,000 for a job phone bank as an alternative to street hiring.
"We have attempted to humanely deal with the issue," he said. "We have tried to find a satisfactory solution for all and respect constitutional rights."
As for the allegations of abuse by sheriff's deputies, Lt. Jim Pierson said the department has not received any complaints of misconduct and said deputies are not indiscriminately harassing Latinos.
Attorneys for the laborers are requesting an injunction this week to suspend enforcement of the ordinances until a hearing is held on their charge that the laws are vague and therefore unconstitutional.
Similar ordinances in Costa Mesa and Encinitas have been ruled unconstitutional in recent years.
The suit also requests a ruling on whether the Sheriff's Department has exceeded its duties and violated laborers' rights by assisting in raids by the INS and otherwise "enforcing federal immigration laws" at the direction of city officials.
"It's one thing when you have local residents who are intolerant," said Nancy Cervantes of Public Counsel, a legal aid firm.
"In this case, City Hall has ratified the intolerance. I think it's outrageously irresponsible."
Plaintiff Nicolas Xiloj, a 24-year-old Mayan Indian from Guatemala, said in an interview that earlier this month a deputy confronted him as he ate breakfast with friends on the Jack In The Box restaurant's patio.
The officer reportedly ordered him to leave, then shoved his face into his food and handcuffed and arrested him.
The deputy used racial slurs and profanity and gave him a citation for soliciting work, Xiloj said.
"He said we weren't allowed to eat there," Xiloj said in Spanish. "He told me, 'Go home, get out of here. The next time I see you, I'm going to take you to immigration so they send you back to your country.' "
Xiloj said he was initially apprehensive about joining in the lawsuit but decided to make a stand because he feels he has done nothing wrong.
"Some of the other workers don't want to go anymore; they are scared," he said. "Why don't they want us to work? Do they want us to sell drugs instead? If I have to, I will go to court and say what was done to me."
Most of the day laborers involved are Central American and many have legal or protected immigration status, according to advocates.
They said the confrontation in Agoura Hills results from a tough economy that has pushed more immigrant laborers into suburban areas in search of construction jobs and other manual labor.