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Day Laborers, Cities Seek a Way That Will Work

Times Staff Writer

They’ve been part of the Southern California landscape for close to four decades: immigrant laborers waiting for work on sidewalks and street corners, swarming drivers as they pull up, ready to move furniture, paint walls, pull weeds, do whatever needs doing.

But now, as the housing boom increases the demand for cheap labor and workers become more organized, the sites where they gather have become a battleground in the widening debate over illegal immigration.

Cities throughout California and around the nation are struggling to cope with the sheer numbers of day laborers, or jornaleros. Critics say the sites not only encourage people to come to the U.S. illegally, but also create traffic jams and are eyesores. Supporters say the workers are simply trying to make an honest living and are crucial to local economies.

But, as cities are discovering, the issue is far more complicated than that. In the same cities where there are protests against the laborers, there is a high demand for their work. And in the same cities where workers are being arrested, their colleagues are volunteering to help businesses remove graffiti and pick up trash.

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“Every major city, even smaller cities, are struggling with this,” said Victor Narro, project director at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center. “It’s become a national issue.”

In their search for solutions, municipal leaders must balance the competing demands of residents, businesses, anti-immigration activists and the workers themselves. Adding to the confusion, some have had to heed the courts as well.

Cities have made bold moves, then sometimes suspended or reversed them. Redondo Beach barred day laborers from seeking work on its streets; a judge then blocked the move. Costa Mesa opened a center to match workers with employers, then decided to close it. Burbank required Home Depot to build its own hiring hall, then put the opening on hold.

Recently, in Herndon, Va., the town council approved a publicly funded day laborer center after a contentious hearing that had to be extended from one night to the next. And in Farmingville, N.Y., authorities evicted dozens of immigrants from overcrowded apartments in what advocates say was an attempt to run jornaleros out of town.

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City leaders and police officers complain that they have had to make decisions on immigration policy because the federal government has not.

“Local government doesn’t exist to drive that kind of policy,” said Glendale Police Capt. Mark Distaso. “This is something that needs to be dealt with on a federal level.”

Activists against illegal immigration are pressuring local, as well as federal, officials to crack down. “Everywhere you turn, people are passing the buck on these issues, and the American people are fed up with it,” said Joseph Turner, who runs the group Save Our State.

Day laborers began gathering in California in the 1960s after the end of the bracero guest-worker program, said UCLA professor Abel Valenzuela, who has conducted numerous studies on workers. Their numbers have multiplied in recent years, with the expansion of part-time work and the influx of immigrants. He estimated that there are as many as 35,000 people seeking work at hundreds of sites in California.

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The majority of day laborers are undocumented immigrants from Mexico or Central America. Most are young and male, although a small number are women. They are a varied group: educated and illiterate, married and single, recently arrived and well-established. Some are legal immigrants who have become skilled workers with business cards, cellphones and regular employers.

Home Depot has been thrust onto center stage in the controversy because the workers often gather outside its stores and in its parking lots, despite a nosolicitation policy. Many employers, small-scale contractors and individual homeowners pick up supplies inside -- and laborers outside.

“We are not the solution, nor are we the problem,” said company real estate director Jeff Nichols.

The company has posted signs to discourage workers at some stores -- and provided supplies to help cities build hiring halls near others.

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Burbank officials thought Home Depot should do more.

When the company sought last year to build a 115,000-square-foot store on the city’s eastern edge, officials made constructing a center for day laborers a condition of the permit. Then they started drafting an ordinance that would encourage use of the center by prohibiting laborers from soliciting work on sidewalks.

Burbank City Manager Mary J. Alvord said she never expected the firestorm the proposed center would ignite. City Council meetings were contentious. Residents accused the city of catering to illegal immigrants. The council was split.

Now, as legal challenges to other cities’ ordinances make their way through the courts, Burbank is in limbo. The Home Depot is scheduled to open in January, but the city plans to hold off on the opening of the center.

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In Los Angeles, the City Council is expected to take up a proposed ordinance later this year that would require all large home improvement stores to build hiring sites for day laborers.

“We are basically coordinating services for a private company for a problem that they created that they won’t acknowledge,” said City Councilman Bernard C. Parks.

Anti-immigration activists have protested at several Home Depots, accusing them of profiting from illegal immigration. They have also demonstrated in Laguna Beach against indirect public funding of a day laborer site, leading to tense face-offs with counterdemonstrators.

“There is a momentum with cities building or thinking about building these day labor centers because they think that is the only way to manage the situation,” said Turner of Save Our State. “We’re trying to stop that momentum.”

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They are having some success. Costa Mesa decided it would close its center in December, in part because officials decided an “attraction for illegal aliens” should not be publicly funded, said Assistant City Manager Steve Hayman.

The laborers, meanwhile, are fighting back -- holding rallies, marches and national organizing conferences to push for centers and against restrictive ordinances. They also are seeking to improve working conditions, advocating for higher wages and filing claims against employers who don’t pay.

“Day laborers got organized and are showing society that we can work, that we are people just looking for an opportunity, for the American dream,” said Amilcar Ozegueda, a former day laborer who coordinates the center in Los Angeles’ Pico-Union neighborhood.

In California, there are roughly 50 city ordinances that limit where laborers can solicit work, said Thomas Saenz, former vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Saenz said the ordinances don’t work. “It’s like holding back a waterfall. It really is supply and demand.”

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MALDEF and other groups are successfully challenging them. The main argument is that laborers, even if some are undocumented, have a constitutional right to stand on public sidewalks and solicit work. Federal judges overturned an L.A. County ordinance in 2000 and a Glendale ordinance this year on those grounds.

The laborers also won a partial victory against Redondo Beach’s ordinance, which had made it unlawful for laborers to solicit work on streets, curbs and sidewalks. The ordinance didn’t stop the immigrants from showing up, and residents and business owners complained. Last fall, undercover police officers arrested about 65 workers.

The day laborers responded by marching on City Hall, chanting and waving banners: “Trabajo, si. Policia, no.” Work, yes. Police, no. The workers then sued the city. In December, the judge temporarily blocked the city from enforcing the ordinance. The case goes to trial next year.

Braulio Gonzalez, a day laborer for more than two decades, was arrested in the undercover sting operation. Gonzalez, a permanent legal resident from Guatemala, felt vindicated by the temporary ruling. “Finally,” he said, “someone was listening to us.”

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The workers want cities to open more centers, safe and shaded places with bathrooms. Valenzuela recently surveyed 63 day laborer centers in the U.S., including 28 in California. More than 80% were created in the last decade, and three-quarters received government funding.

The centers, usually run by nonprofits, occasionally offer English classes, as well as job training and tool-sharing programs. They also work with local businesses, residents and police to resolve concerns, improve workers’ public image and spread the word about the available labor.

“Centers alleviate some of the tensions,” said Pablo Alvarado, who heads the National Day Labor Organizing Network and was recently named by Time magazine as one of the nation’s 25 most influential Hispanics. “They are not perfect, but they are better for everyone.”

Glendale built a center in 1997, with Home Depot’s help, to manage the crowds of men who gathered outside the store on San Fernando Road. The center, across the street from the store, displays a handmade sign: Temporary Workers for Hire. On a recent morning, more than 100 men, and a few women, sat inside the shelter, playing dominoes and reading newspapers. A list of rules hung on a nearby pillar. No fighting. No drinking. No drugs.

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Just before 10 a.m., a car pulled up and the driver said, “I need someone to do yardwork for $10 an hour for at least four hours.” The coordinator pointed to one of the immigrants, who hopped into the front seat. He was one of about 30 workers who were hired that morning.

Cesar Herrarte, 37, has been going to the center for nearly five years. He feels more secure there, because he knows the employers’ license plates are recorded in case problems arise. Herrarte, who sends money to his wife and three children in Guatemala, said he usually gets work about four days a week.

But, partly because the pecking order for jobs is decided by lottery, some men still prefer to solicit work on the sidewalk, closer to Home Depot.

Without an ordinance to keep workers off the streets and sidewalks, there is little incentive for them -- or for prospective employers -- to flock to the center.

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“We thought that we struck a balance between their rights and our interests,” said Glendale Assistant City Atty. Ann Maurer. The police, she said, “are not out there just to ticket these guys and throw them in jail and prevent them from seeking employment. They just want to make the area a positive place for the business owners, the residents and the day laborers.”


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