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City favored in day laborer ruling

Times Staff Writer

An Orange County Superior Court judge has rejected arguments by illegal immigration opponents who want Laguna Beach to stop funding a controversial day labor center.

Judge Gregory Munoz issued a ruling Monday saying Laguna Beach residents Eileen Garcia and George Riviere had failed to prove that the $22,000 the city has been spending annually on the center is an illegal expenditure or a waste of public money.

Munoz said the city-funded job center on Laguna Canyon Road provides a public benefit, much like a park. The judge also said there was no evidence that the center was used exclusively by illegal immigrants.

“Under their argument, we couldn’t fund a soup kitchen because it might be used by illegal aliens,” said Laguna Beach City Atty. Robert O. Owen. “The city is just funding a public amenity.”

Garcia and Riviere, members of the Minuteman Project citizen patrol group, had sought an injunction to prevent the city from continuing to fund the center. The two plan to appeal Munoz’s decision.

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But the two residents, the judge wrote, couldn’t prove that laborers who show up looking for work are illegal immigrants. The status of day laborers is not checked at the job center.

Further, the judge said, criminal penalties for harboring illegal immigrants don’t apply to a government entity such as Laguna Beach.

Eight years ago, the city began giving money to the nonprofit Cross Cultural Council to operate the center, the purpose of which has been debated since July 2006 when Garcia found records showing it was operating on state property.

State officials, saying they had not realized the land even belonged to them, then agreed to lease the land to the city for $420 a month.

Supported by Judicial Watch, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., Garcia and Riviere filed a lawsuit in October 2006.

“All along I knew this would end up in a higher court,” Garcia said. “I was hopeful it would end here but I’m not surprised.”

Judicial Watch filed a similar lawsuit against the city of Thousand Oaks, which also spends money on a labor center. The group has opened an “investigation” into a similarly funded job center in Seattle.

Judicial Watch attorney Candace Jackson said she is prepared to bring the Laguna Beach suit before the state Supreme Court if the case fails before a three-judge panel in appeals court.

“The issues raised -- the rights of the city versus federal law -- are important enough that I believe the state Supreme Court would take it up,” she said.

Funding a soup kitchen differs greatly from a day labor center, she argued. The center is specifically set up to provide employment to day laborers, many of whom are not legal residents allowed to work in the United States, she said.

Laguna Beach City Manager Ken Frank could not say how much the lawsuit has cost the city. The city attorney charges $210 an hour, he said.

Garcia said the city would not be spending money on the litigation if it were not supporting a nonprofit that helps workers who violate immigration laws.

Frank said he was pleased with the judge’s ruling, but believes continued litigation will waste taxpayer resources.

The lawsuit “takes us away from the reason why we are doing this. These people were standing on street corners on residential streets and we found a way to get rid of that problem at a low cost. Does that mean I support illegal immigration? No,” he said.

“The practical matter is that they were here before we had this center and they would be here if we didn’t have it,” Frank said.

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jennifer.delson@latimes.com


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