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Curbside Laborers Still in Business Despite Ordinance : Policy: D.A. can’t afford manpower to enforce law that applies to unincorporated areas of the county.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly seven weeks after the enactment of a county law criminalizing curbside job solicitation, no day laborers or employers have been arrested, and groups of job seekers continue to gather on street corners throughout the county.

In fact, it is likely that no one will ever be prosecuted, largely because Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti openly refuses to devote limited resources to charging violators. But in some parts of the county, the mere threat of prosecution--however remote--appears to be at least temporarily deterring potential employers from hiring day laborers and pressuring job seekers to move elsewhere.

The law, enacted July 1, makes curbside job seeking in unincorporated areas a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

A similar 3-year-old Agoura Hills ordinance--the model for the countywide law--has been so ineffective that city officials have given up on enforcing it.

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But in Ladera Heights and La Mirada, sheriff’s deputies are distributing written warnings about the county ordinance to job seekers and potential employers, a strategy that seems to scare both parties away, at least as long as deputies are on the scene.

“Let’s be candid here,” said Lt. Gary Schoeller, commanding officer of the Marina del Rey Sheriff’s Station, which patrols Ladera Heights. “We’re not going to fix the day-laborer problem or illegal immigration with this law. At best, all we can hope for is to move it to another location.”

Assuming that result is achievable, it could satisfy those homeowners who regard throngs of day laborers as unsightly. But the tactic could land the Sheriff’s Department in court because the American Civil Liberties Union and immigrants-rights groups consider it illegal harassment.

The legal battle has been playing out regularly on street corners and in front of home-repair stores in some unincorporated areas.

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At Home Base in the Ladera Heights neighborhood north of Inglewood, four sheriff’s officials spent part of one morning last week warning shoppers about the ordinance and videotaping day laborers. The purpose of the tape, they said, was to frighten off the workers and document the deputies’ innocence in case laborers allege in court that they were manhandled.

A group of six day laborers approached Sgt. Homer Castille to complain.

“We need to work to feed our families,” said Juan Carlos Ruiz."With a lot of cops here, the contractors don’t stop.”

“That’s the point,” Castille said. “Maybe it’s best if you find another place to find a job. I sympathize with your plight, but the way we interpret the ordinance, any time you solicit for work is a violation.”

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“You don’t understand the ordinance,” Ruiz said. “We’re staying.”

“Then we’ll be seeing a lot of each other,” Castille said.

County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and other opponents of illegal immigration envisioned a different result when they championed the law in the spring. They proclaimed that it would rid neighborhoods of day laborers and even stem the influx of undocumented workers into Southern California.

“This empowers the community to protect itself and its public rights of way,” Antonovich said on May 24, when the Board of Supervisors approved the ordinance 3 to 1. “And it eliminates the incentive for people to break the law by coming to this country to work.”

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Added Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform: “If the federal government won’t do its job and control its borders, we’ll have to do it on the local level.”

Antonovich still defends the law, blaming its shortcomings on Garcetti’s refusal to enforce it. The supervisors cannot force Garcetti to uphold the law because he is an elected official, leaving it up to voters to register their dissatisfaction at the polls, Antonovich said.

Garcetti, who declined to comment on the issue last week, had said in the past that he would not enforce the new ordinance but would continue to prosecute day laborers who violate previously existing laws, such as that forbidding public urination.

“We have limited resources,” he said in May. “Not only that, but it would be difficult for me to prosecute someone for simply trying to get a job.”

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Garcetti’s stance has drawn the anger of the Ladera Heights Civic Assn., whose protests about day laborers helped fuel the law.

“The day-laborer situation is the same as it was, or worse,” said Ronnie Cooper, the group’s president. But the group is withholding judgment on the merits of the law in hopes that the sheriff’s leaflet campaign will work.

The demand for day laborers’ services works against the enforcement effort. Even as deputies issued the written warnings last week, some customers of the fast-food restaurant next to Home Base were defiant.

“I don’t see anything wrong with the day laborers here. At least they’re out to make an honest buck, not stealing,” said Irvin J. Lynch, a computer company manager who lives nearby. “I use them quite frequently.”

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In Agoura Hills, residents say their local ordinance has proved to be a paper tiger. Day laborers now congregate in slightly fewer numbers at the corner of Agoura and Kanan roads but only because competition has forced them to gather at four additional sites in the city of 20,300 residents.

“We’re disappointed in the law,” said Darlene McBane, a former councilwoman and staunch supporter of the ordinance. “It certainly hasn’t done a whole lot.”

In 1991, the city blamed a day laborer’s death on the traffic disruption caused by men rushing up to vehicles and contended that a law prohibiting curbside job solicitation was needed to prevent additional accidents.

In a compromise, the city also set up a telephone job bank to help day laborers find jobs, but the service has barely been used, linking only seven to 15 day laborers a week with employers.

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Sheriff’s deputies cited about 50 day laborers and employers in August, 1991, the first month after the law was enacted. But even before Garcetti was elected, the district attorney’s office had refused to file any charges, said Lt. Jim Pierson of the Lost Hills/Malibu Sheriff’s Station.

“The D.A. looked at it like a vice operation and said we have to actually hear the solicitation to make a case,” Pierson said. “Another option would be to put an undercover officer out there, but . . . it comes down to resources, among other things.”

Meanwhile, the ACLU and immigrants-rights groups sued, arguing that the law violated the constitutional rights to speech, assembly and travel.

In April, the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that the city has the right to regulate the activity of day laborers as it relates to local traffic safety standards. Buoyed by Agoura Hills’ victory in court, the county adopted a similar ordinance.

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But the victory was a hollow one for Agoura Hills because of the district attorney’s stance and the difficulty of proving that solicitation occurred.

“If they’d give us a law that works, we’d use it,” Pierson said. “The Board of Supervisors pacified the (Ladera Heights) neighbors when they passed this law, but that’s all they did.”


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