Police sweep spurs lawsuit


Dozens of day laborers marched for an hour through Costa Mesa streets Tuesday, chanting slogans and carrying signs to protest a city anti-solicitation ordinance they say unfairly prevents them from gathering in parking lots and public places to look for work.

As the protesters reached City Hall, their destination, a pair of civil rights groups — the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California — filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana that challenges Costa Mesa’s ordinance as “unconstitutional.”

Public gatherings where day laborers wait for work or wave at potential employers in passing vehicles have long been a tactic among many unemployed immigrants in Southern California. But as these gatherings seem to have grown with the recession, so have complaints about them.


The new litigation results from a Costa Mesa police sweep in which undercover officers — after police received more than 100 complaints — posed as undercover employers to round up 12 men at three city locations Sept. 25, MALDEF and ACLU representatives said.

The officers promised the men $8-an-hour jobs, but ended up citing them for violating the anti-solicitation ordinance, activists said. The men were ultimately deported to Mexico within two days of their arrest because they were illegally working and living in the United States, activists said. In many cases, the men left behind wives and children.

“This is clearly a violation of free speech — prohibiting day laborers from seeking employment,” said Thomas Saefonz, president and general counsel for MALDEF in Los Angeles. “It is a cherished right to be able to look for work and exercise your right to free speech. It’s a right that has been fought for and passed down for generations.”

The ordinance states that it is unlawful for any person “to stand on a street and actively solicit employment, business or contributions from any person in a motor vehicle traveling along a street.”

It’s also illegal to drive by and hire anybody who’s soliciting work from the street, according to the ordinance.

As for those who twirl signs and advertise local businesses, they too are in violation of the ordinance, passed by the city in 2005, activists pointed out.

“As it’s written, then schoolchildren who hold car washes to raise money should be arrested and cited,” said Gladys Limon, staff attorney for MALDEF. “This ordinance places strict restrictions on people’s ability to express themselves and express their need for a job. The distinction between ‘permitted passive solicitation’ and ‘prohibited active solicitation’ is illusory.”

City Atty. Kimberly Hall Barlow did not return calls requesting an interview, but Costa Mesa Police Chief Christopher Shawkey did respond to questions about the Sept. 25 law enforcement sweep.

He said it was carried out in five locations: 2200 Harbor Blvd., 2680 Newport Blvd., 2300 Harbor Blvd., 2150 Placentia Ave. and 799 W. 17th St. Of the five locations, there were problems at three — at 2680 Newport Blvd., 2150 Placentia Ave. and 799 W. 17th St. — Shawkey said.

“As long as they’re in conformance with the city code,” Shawkey said, referring to the day laborers, “we have no problem with them. But they shouldn’t step into the roadway or be aggressive in their solicitation.”

Mayor Allan Mansoor said some day laborers are doing more than aggressively looking for jobs — they’re also “loitering in front of businesses, urinating in the streets, throwing trash and being loud and disruptive.” He added: “I don’t think anybody would want that in their neighborhood.”

According to MALDEF, several cities that have had similar anti-solicitation ordinances have repealed such ordinances in the face of litigation, including Lake Forest, Glendale, Upland and Los Angeles County. They’re hoping that Costa Mesa follows suit.

City Manager Allan Roeder also did not return phone calls Tuesday as to what they planned to do in the wake of the lawsuit.

According to the activists, one of the biggest problems in the city these days is that there is no longer one designated place where workers can congregate and look for work.

The city used to have a day worker center, but that was closed down in 2006, and since then the day laborers have spread out over parts of the city in search of jobs.

Mansoor in the past has said he supported shuttering the city-subsidized labor center at 17th Street and Placentia Avenue, saying it cost the city $100,000 a year to run, and that he didn’t think city government should be in the business of providing jobs, especially if many of the laborers are here illegally.

“Let the private sector deal with that, and let the jobs go to those who are here legally,” Mansoor said Tuesday.

But to many day laborers, the right to look for work is a “human right,” something they wrote on the placards they carried. Other signs read, “We are workers, not criminals” or “Stop police harassment.”

“These are the hands that paint your houses and grow your gardens,” said Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network. “Costa Mesa has distinguished itself by choosing to enforce this ordinance in the last few months. Most cities that have this ordinance don’t enforce it all. They realize that it’s wrong.”

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