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Hiring Hall for Migrant Workers Shuttered

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Its appeal for outside funding having failed, the city of Encinitas closed its beleaguered immigrant job center Friday, ending a two-year experiment in dealing with the perplexing and often overwhelming issue of migrant labor.

Since November, 1989, the Encinitas Job Center has operated out of a recreational vehicle parked on the southeast corner of El Camino Real at Olivenhein Road, a hiring hall of sorts where documented immigrants could link up with employers offering mostly day jobs from yard work and housekeeping to construction and farm labor. The center claims to have made 10,000 job placements.

The first of its kind in San Diego County, the center was seen by its Encinitas backers as a way of reducing the number of immigrants who daily lined El Camino Real looking for work, creating mob scenes that frequently disrupted traffic.

The center dealt only with legal or documented immigrants, and its stated goal was to protect workers from abuses and employers from running afoul of illegal hiring practices and the Border Patrol.

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The controversial center had its share of critics, from citizens who felt the center indirectly encouraged illegal immigration to migrants’ rights groups who said the center has forsaken a social obligation by not helping illegal immigrants.

Critics included some of the workers it was charged with helping.

Several interviewed at the job center site Friday, many of whom live in the canyons just east of the job center’s vacant lot, blamed the center for what they said has been a steady decline in jobs and average wages offered.

They say the center has created intense competition for jobs by attracting documented workers from other parts of the county as well as Tijuana.

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They also say the popularity of the center is at fault, and only grudgingly concede that larger economic forces could be at work.

Jose Santiago said that, as far as he was concerned, it was “no problem” that the center was closing up. “We’ve been coming here five years for work, and it’s more difficult now because more people are coming here from the other side” of the border, he said.

“People come and pay what they want and take who they want because there is more unemployment,” Antonio Contreras said.

Politics aside, the center ultimately fell victim to economic and budgetary pressures. Encinitas officials announced earlier this month it would close the center unless the $55,000 in annual funding necessary for one staff person and a cellular phone was made available from private sources.

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No benefactor came forward, and on Friday center director Raymond Munoz gathered up the mobile center’s signs and trash cans and drove the center away for the last time. But, before he left, Munoz, the city’s Transient Issues Program assistant director who himself is now out of a job, vented some of the frustrations involved in managing the job center.

“As far as the politics go, it’s been difficult,” Munoz said. “Everyone has a point of view. You’ve got the property owners, the migrant rights people, and you can never really satisfy any party.”

Then there are the problems of the workers, most of whom don’t read or speak English and who suffer from a variety of social and medical ills.

“This is an underclass that seems to be growing. These folks don’t stand a chance. There’s just a lack of infrastructure to meet their basic needs. You get tired of the situation,” Munoz said, admitting to being burned out.

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In defending the center, Munoz and Encinitas community development director Patrick Murphy said the figures speak for themselves. The center made 10,000 placements of workers with 3,000 different employers in its two years of existence.

The center was also a forum where workers could go to receive social services, including English classes from Operation Ser volunteers and medical counseling from the Canyon Coalition. Roberto Gotay, a full-time employee with the state Employment Development Department’s Oceanside office, spent half-days at the center explaining worker rights.

Workers interviewed Friday, however, said the outside services have diminished significantly in recent months.

Some workers, such as Bernardino Orea, said the center was successful in generating jobs.

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“What will happen when it closes is the same as before,” he said. “People will wait for work in the streets, creating disorder.”

The EDD’s Gotay has observed the increasing phenomenon of documented workers turning against those without papers, of legal workers defending their interests in an increasingly depressed economy by reporting North County farmers who employ lower-paid illegal workers.

“The (drought has) made it worse. The water conservation measures have reduced the landscaping and agricultural jobs. Those were the most plentiful jobs we would get,” Gotay said.

North County’s second hall for hiring migrants opened in Carlsbad in July, but Munoz said he doubts the workers living in the canyons of Encinitas will use the Carlsbad site because it is not within walking distance.

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“It’s a dollar each way for a ride (to the Carlsbad job center) and there’s no guarantee they’ll find a job,” Munoz said. “People will go back to the streets, back to (calling on) the ranches.”

According to one proposal, the vacant lot that until Friday was occupied by the Encinitas Job Center may soon become part of a giant new residential and retail development, including a 102,000-square-foot Home Depot home improvement center.


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