Cities Confront Clusters of Day Laborers

Local governments are taking two basic approaches to day laborers — some of them undocumented workers — who wait on public streets for jobs. Some try to drive them away. Others offer work centers where potential employers can find them.

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If there's a frontline in the battle over illegal immigration, it's on the nation's street corners and sidewalks. That's where more than 100,000 day laborers try their luck each day. One study found three quarters of them are undocumented.

And as these immigrants have increased in number and spread to more places, they've sparked a growing backlash as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Drive into the old part of Gaithersburg, Maryland, and just over the railroad tracks to the right is an increasingly familiar sight.

Mr. HENRY MARRAFFA (Councilor, Gaithersburg, Maryland): This is the building that we hear. You can see the men are hanging there.

LUDDEN: City councilor Henry Marraffa motions toward a dozen or so Hispanic men standing listlessly on a side street as morning creeps toward noon.

(Soundbite of train)

LUDDEN: Marraffa has spent the better part of the year trying to get the jobseekers off the street, pushed by the residents as Gaithersburg's nearby historic district. Down a well-manicured street of century-old homes, Cathy Drasgula(ph) stops weeding to chat. She says she didn't mind the day laborers at first. But when their numbers grew to several dozen, neighbors got together and realized they've been suffering the same annoyances.

Ms. CATHY DRASGULA: We've have people sleeping under the bushes, people, you know, basically, treating your yard as their home, public urination occasionally, not real often. But I was, you know, walking down a street with my 14-year-old daughter at the time and she's in front of the church, and she's like what is that man doing there?

LUDDEN: Councilor Marraffa pushed for an anti-solicitation law, which recently passed. The town also looked into setting up a formal workers' center for the men. But residents complained about every possible site, and Marraffa doesn't think the town should spend public money helping illegal immigrants.

Mr. MARRAFFA: It's against the law to hire an illegal immigrant. It's against the law to aid and abet into hiring of illegal immigrants. And it's also against the law to create a destination spot. Now, pick one of those and we break all three of those when we build a center.

LUDDEN: Montgomery County saw it differently. Officials finally stepped in and agreed to fund a day worker site for Gaithersburg, part of a growing network of such places.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

LUDDEN: At the CASA of Maryland employment center in Wheaton a couple dozen men and women sit on folding chairs or stand anxiously looking out the glass door. One job offer comes over the phone.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: A moving company needs a second driver to help deliver a load to Chicago. A two-day trip pays $300 plus food. A young man named Jose(ph) brandishes his driver's license and is put on the line for a quick interview.

JOSE: Yes. I am very good. What about you? Yeah. I drive a bus in my country. Yes. Maybe the same.

LUDDEN: He gets the job. The philosophy here is actually to help workers move out of casual labor. There are English and computer classes, leadership training and referrals for lawyers. Executive director Gustavo Torres says one of CASA's greatest successes was when the center helped 10 women sue an employer who stiffed them.

Mr. GUSTAVO TORRES (Executive Director, CASA of Maryland): We win, like, $60,000. And they were very, very happy. But they went beyond that. They say, you know what, with this one is we want to open a business for us, can you help us to do it? Now they have a cleaning co-op.

Unidentified Man #2: What's you going to have?

Mr. PABLO ALVARADO (Director, National Day Laborer Organizing Network): May I have a fresh fruit yogurt punch?

LUDDEN: Pablo Alvarado looks out of place ordering breakfast. He's in a plaid shirt and casual khakis in this fancy Washington hotel. Alvarado is a former day laborer who founded the National Day Laborer Organizing Network seven years ago. Now he's come to lobby Congress, a job he doesn't seem to relish. But Alvarado perks up at the annoying noise outside the window. It's a leaf-blower wielded by a Hispanic-looking man.

Mr. ALVARADO: I get very happy when I hear those sounds. I mean, That means people are out there working.

LUDDEN: Alvarado's been motivated by his own humiliations. Like the time he showed up half an hour early one morning for a job interview at a home in North Hollywood. He parked his car to wait.

Mr. ALVARADO: Until I saw the neighbors opening their windows and looking at me like if I was some kind of a criminal, and all of the sudden a bunch of police officers came. And I didn't speak English well, but I knew how to write. And I remember that I had to write down what I was doing there.

LUDDEN: Alvarado's network has been challenging anti-solicitation ordinances around the country and scoring victories. A California judge found that seeking work in public is protected free speech, regardless of someone's legal status. Another found that police in Mamaroneck, New York, were harassing day laborers, and were motivated in part, the judge wrote, because the workers were Latino.

Mr. ALVARADO: I think that the legal battle is important, but perhaps the most difficult part is when the workers understand that they can do something, they can defend their right. And that people can't come and simply exploit them because they know and exercise their rights.

LUDDEN: Paul Orfanedes is legal director of Judicial Watch, which has challenged public financing of day labor sites. He says the issue isn't human rights but the rule of law. He asks would anyone feel the same about the drug trade?

Mr. PAUL ORFANEDES (Legal Director, Judicial Watch): Should we promote? Should we organize? Should we help these dealers to engage in their trade? And we're going to make sure that no one is being taken advantage of in these transactions? It's a black market.

LUDDEN: Supporter say if the federal government can't control illegal immigration, at least day labor sites impose some order on this underground chaos. But Judicial Watch director Tom Fitton says in the bigger picture, they're far from helpful.

Mr. TOM FITTON (President, Judicial Watch): They make the problem worse because they are magnets for more illegal immigrants. You know, they're the endpoints in human smuggling chains.

LUDDEN: Fitton believes if local towns can make life hostile enough, day laborers might just stop taking to street corners or even think twice about coming to the U.S. But at the CASA's Maryland Worker Center, 57-year-old Victor Menjibar(ph) thinks that's a pretty self-defeating attitude.

Mr. VICTOR MENJIBAR (CASA Maryland Worker Center): (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: Sometimes, we immigrants work with contaminated materials without any protection, he says, or there's really hard work like breaking up concrete. Menjibar says Americans don't want to do this, but we do it either out of necessity or maybe God gave us a little more strength.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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