Day Laborer ‘Sweep’ Cleans Up Nothing : Costa Mesa Arrests Serve as Reminder: Police and INS Have More Important Work

Orange County again has received a lesson in the wrong way to deal with undocumented immigrants, this time in Costa Mesa. Earlier this month, Costa Mesa police arrested nine day laborers who they said were violating a city ordinance by asking motorists for work. Police turned the men over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which deported them to Mexico.

Police said those deported had no identification. One man who did have an I.D. was cited and released, as was another man whose family arrived at an INS processing station with his identification. The city manager said it is Costa Mesa’s policy to arrest people charged with violating an ordinance when they do not have identification.

The incident understandably angered Latino activists. Police should not work as agents for the INS, as they did in Costa Mesa and have done in other Orange County cities in years past.

Costa Mesa took the commendable step seven years ago of opening a center for day laborers not far from Lions Park, the site of this month’s arrests. The center does not investigate immigration status; officials correctly maintain that it is up to the employers to determine whether someone is in the country legally, as the law provides.

One danger of “sweeps” of immigrants is that they inadvertently can be disruptive even for those here legally, who may have forgotten or misplaced identification. The tactics also can breed distrust of police, who need community support. The effect on illegal immigration will be minimal, at best.

Police said residents near Lions Park complained about laborers loitering there and motorists were worried about the danger of accidents if job-seekers darted into traffic while seeking work. Police also said those arrested had been warned repeatedly and made aware of the job center several blocks away.

Day laborers intruding into traffic can be a problem, and those who defy police requests to move may deserve to be cited. But turning them over to the INS is not the answer. The immigration agents should be concentrating on stopping illegal immigration at the border and enforcing the law against employers hiring undocumented workers. That would keep some illegal workers from being exploited by unscrupulous employers.

Police have more important work to do than shoo day laborers from street corners; the INS has better places to be than on the streets of Costa Mesa.