Day Labor Centers Stir Controversy Throughout Country

Editor's note: This is the second article in a two-part series on the debate over illegal immigration.

In many urban and suburban areas across the country, the sight is a familiar one: groups of men, usually Hispanic, congregating in empty parking lots or outside the local 7-Eleven, hoping to score a job for the day from a drive-by contractor.

Their presence in some cases is ignored as a reality of the times, but in many situations, residents and business owners say they are frustrated and intimidated by the practice. In response, they have asked local law enforcement to intervene, and sometimes, protesters have picketed the day labor locations.

"There is a fear that this is a subset of the population that will bring crime and decrease property values," said Bill Threlkeld, director of Project Hope and Harmony (search), the non-profit group that recently pushed through approval of a town-sponsored day labor center for immigrants in Herndon, Va.

Click here to read Part I in the two-part series on the debate over illegal immigration.

The Herndon Town Council (search) on Aug. 17 approved the proposal for the day labor center, which many believe will resolve the increasing problem of workers gathering around the 7-Eleven there. Proponents say "a few bad apples" among the gatherings have intimidated neighbors and put this town of 22,000 on edge.

"What we want to do is start a center that can prove that the workers are part of the community," said Threlkeld. "It's a slow process of change and understanding and I believe Herndon is up to that."

Herndon's population is about 38 percent foreign-born, with about a third of those being Latino, according to the 2000 U.S. Census (search).

Not everyone sees the day laborers as "part of the community." Critics say most of these workers, who are mostly Latino, are undocumented aliens and any attempt to assist them in their daily job searches encourages illegal immigration.

"I do not support the use of state, local or federal money supporting illegal activity," said Virginia Assembly Del. Scott Linganfelter, a Republican whose northern Virginia district has seen massive immigration flow in the last 20 years.

"It just legitimates behavior that is illegal," said Joseph Turner, a spokesman for Save Our State, an organization that often demonstrates outside worker gatherings and day labor centers in California.

"I got fed up with the idea that we had to send letters to our congressmen," said Turner, who complained that tack just didn’t work. "What we wanted to do was have an effect on the local level."

He said Save Our State's continued presence at gathering sites has deterred contractors from pulling in to pick up workers for fear they might be linked to the hiring of undocumented immigrants. "We have found that we have had some success," he said.

A Deterrent Here, A Day Laborer There

The University of California at Los Angeles Center for the Study of Urban Poverty is currently undergoing a national study of 300 hiring sites in 22 states and has released findings from 87 sites in Southern California, 29 in New York and most recently 16 in the metro Washington, D.C., region.

While differences in the ethnic origins of day workers and their time in the United States varies from state to state, the UCLA studies assert that misperceptions persist that these workers are largely homeless, recent arrivals and illiterate.

In fact, according to the studies, half are married or living with a partner, a majority have families to support and have more than six years' education. The laborers have lived in the United States anywhere from less than a year to more than a decade. Many have been ripped off by employers and even physically abused.

No formal study has assessed how many day laborers there are throughout the country, and how many of them are undocumented. Abel Valenzuela, director of the UCLA center, speculated that about three-fourths of all day laborers are undocumented.

"We do have undocumented workers," acknowledged Silvia Navas, supervisor for the CASA of the Maryland Employment Rights Project in Silver Spring. The center is part of a network of 125 facilities that helps day laborers find work across the country and offers English language and vocational training.

"They are people who have a right to find a job. They come here because the economy in their countries aren't working," said Navas, who makes it a point not to ask whether the worker is legal. "That's the responsibility of the employer to ask."

Typically in the day labor centers across the nation, workers sign in and are placed in a lottery. Employers in many cases are asked to sign in too — protecting both employer and worker from the "bad apples" that can inhabit these situations, say proponents.

"It's been well received — a win-win situation," said Fr. Kevin Collins of the Immaculate Conception Church in the predominantly Mexican east end of Houston. As a member of the executive committee of the Metropolitan Organization of the Industrial Areas Foundation, Collins helped to get private and public funding to build the East End Worker Center in March.

"First of all, if people are getting paid for their work, that's good for the community," he said. "It's helped in providing a place where you don't have a bunch of men standing on the corner, where you have little old ladies or a child threatened a bit by walking by these guys."

Collins said if the federal government would allow more unskilled workers into the country legally, the problem of undocumented workers crowding into communities looking for work would be less prevalent.

"There is certainly a demand for people to work," he noted. "The fact that the government hasn’t changed that situation is making it difficult for everyone all the way around."

Critics say that they don’t disagree that Washington needs to reform the system, but that enabling illegal aliens to find jobs is counterproductive to battling the larger illegal immigration problem.

"I'm not against day labor centers but I am against the government encouraging illegal aliens," said Steve Camerota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which estimates about 6 million undocumented workers in the country today.

"It seems to me that if there is an illegal immigration problem," he said, "then you want to round these guys up and send them out of the country if they are illegally here."