Temporary workers incite ongoing battles
Across the nation, informal day laborer gathering sites are cropping up in parking lots and abandoned buildings and along sidewalks. For many businesses and residents, the sites have become both a public safety issue and an eyesore. Yet solving the problem has become a prickly topic for many local governments.
Herndon, Va., has long lived with such a situation. Over the past eight years, a 7-Eleven parking lot had become an unofficial hiring site for approximately 100 men who gathered there each day, many of whom were undocumented workers from Latin America. In August, the Town Council voted 5-2 to establish a formal regulated day laborer site at the town’s former police station to be operated by the non-profit Project Hope & Harmony (PHH) and to be publicly funded by Fairfax County.
Town Councilman Dennis Husch was one of the two members who voted against the measure. He says Herndon first tried to clean up the problem by asking the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (BICE) to check the immigration status of workers gathered at the 7-Eleven or to train local police on enforcing federal immigration laws. But BICE refused, citing a limited number of agents in the region.
Herndon then approached the problem from a land use issue, creating an ordinance that prohibits ad hoc sites once the Town Council designates an official hiring site. “What was not fully appreciated was the threat perceived by the adjacent single-family homeowners and the homeowners that saw their property as the travel-way from the existing site to the proposed site,” Husch says. He believes PHH has worsened the situation by providing employment services to illegal immigrants at the proposed hiring site.
Yet proponents of the measure feel the site is a reasonable solution to the issue. They argue the regulated site will better manage workers and contractors and enable police to take legal action if workers continue to congregate at ad-hoc locations.
Virginia, however, has enacted legislation effective Jan. 1 that will prohibit funding social services for illegal immigrants. In response, PHH is working to secure funds that will allow the project to operate entirely through private donations.
“Anytime you deal with an issue like this, you’ve got people with strong emotions on both sides,” says Hoover, Ala., Town Councilman Gene Smith. In August, Hoover terminated a contract that allowed Catholic Social Services (CSS) to use a city-owned building for adult education services and other programs primarily for Hispanic illegal immigrants. The Town Council objected to the building’s additional use as a day laborer site on the grounds that taxpayer-owned property should not be used for an activity that breaks a federal law. Smith says CSS refused the town’s offer to extend the contract if the organization agreed to discontinue the day labor operation.
While local governments’ focus largely has been on poor illegal immigrants who cross the border to find work, some argue that employers who hire the workers also should be held responsible. Businesses in Arizona — home of the most active illegal entry point on the country’s southern border — employ large numbers of illegal immigrants. Despite complaints that the state shoulders an unfair burden for immigrant health care and education costs, businesses literally are standing at the border with signs reading, “hiring today,” says Rep. Pete Rios of Hayden, Ariz.
He says Americans want to have it both ways. While some clamor for legislation prohibiting state services for illegal immigrants — such as Arizona’s Proposition 200 that would prohibit illegal immigrants from receiving health services at local clinics — they routinely look the other way when it comes to employers who hire those same immigrants at cheap rates.
Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.