Public Safety & Justice

Toil and Trouble

Illegal immigrants working as day laborers present one of the toughest, most divisive issues to land on local government's doorstep in recent years.
by | April 2006
 

It's just after six o'clock on a crisp February morning in the Village of Brewster, New York, one of a string of small towns that dot a busy commuter rail line leading into Manhattan, 50 miles to the south. The dark outlines of Main Street's one- to three-story commercial buildings are silhouetted against a pink and purple dawn sky. Despite the early hour, there is a general stirring downtown. Descending from the hill above the village's commercial row is a steady stream of men in work clothes, hooded sweatshirts and ball caps pulled down to just above their eyes.

It's the beginning of the daily procession of immigrant workers--most of them from Guatemala and most of them undocumented--as they take their places along Main Street in clusters ranging from three to more than a dozen. They stand curbside waiting to be picked up by the small convoy of trucks and SUVs that circulates through Brewster seven mornings a week, contractors and homeowners looking for a day's work out of men willing to do dirty, hard jobs for wages that most American workers wouldn't even consider.

The scene that unfolds nearly every morning in Brewster is mirrored in hundreds of municipalities, both large and small, across the country. Groups of men--from places such as Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Colombia and El Salvador--up early in the morning, gathering at casually established pickup points, hoping to make enough money to live and perhaps send to family back home. And while many Americans seem comfortable with the concept of cut-rate labor when it comes to home renovation or grounds-keeping, they seem decidedly less sanguine about the consequences of such economics, the most fundamental of which means playing host to a new and very different group of residents in and around their communities.

And so in villages, towns and cities from New York to California, the day labor phenomenon is bringing with it predictable tensions revolving around race and culture, and perceptions of poverty and crime. To date, local governments have been the front line in dealing with the issue. The ways they have managed it are as varied as the communities experiencing the phenomenon, but the approaches can be broken down into three general categories: ignore it, crack down, or adapt and manage.

OVERT CONFLICT

A quiet bedroom community of about 2,000 people, Brewster was one of those places that for a decade more or less ignored the issue. But as its undocumented day-laborer population began to swell (some estimate it to be as many as 600 to 1,000), tensions inevitably ratcheted up. Complaints about intimidating groups of strange men on the sidewalks watching women walk by, public drunkenness, homelessness and other objectionable behaviors simmered.

The situation heated up further last fall when a day laborer was found passed out on the grounds of a local elementary school. It boiled over in early January, when a Putnam County sheriff rounded up eight day laborers who were playing soccer on the grounds of the same elementary school during school hours. They were all arrested for trespassing. One was reported to federal immigration authorities and faces deportation. With the arrests, Brewster became one more pinpoint on the national map of places where the battle over day laborers had broken out into the open.

Why streams of immigrants have arrived in the United States to take jobs that most Americans don't seem to want isn't much of a mystery. Ask any day laborer why he's here and at least some part of the answer will include that work here pays incredibly well by the standards of their home countries. Eduardo, a 32-year-old, undocumented worker who first arrived in Brewster 11 years ago, and who now lives just to the south in the Village of Mount Kisco, says he has managed to carve out a specialty in tree work, which earns him as much as $25,000 per year, more than half of which he sends back to his family in Guatemala. He makes that much, he says, "because the work is very dangerous." While Edu ardo says he now has a steady employer, initially he too was part of the small army of young men in Brewster standing on the sidewalk willing to take just about any work that came their way.

According to a recent study of the day-labor phenomenon, Brewster has its equivalent in more than 500 other communities nationwide--where roughly 120,000 laborers gather every day to try to find work--or, more accurately, where they hope work will find them. Three-quarters of those workers are here illegally. About half work directly for homeowners, and just over 43 percent for contractors. The jobs they do vary from as low- skill as washing dishes, to as high-skill as fine masonry, although most appear to be basic, hard and often dangerous.

The study documents a fairly high level of abuse of day laborers at the hands of employers--the most common form being failure to pay owed wages, but ranging up to outright neglect when it comes to workplace danger and on-the-job injuries. It also touches on some issues related to how day laborers are treated by the communities in which they live and work, noting frequent instances of hostility from both police and local merchants. Nonetheless, at least 63 communities have tried to defuse the tension by setting up organized sites where they can gather and wait for work.

The concept of day-labor centers isn't one that's quickly accepted by most communities. Many localities have resisted this approach, believing that it will only draw more illegal workers to their town. Other communities have decided (or have been compelled to decide, in part through legal action) that it makes more sense to at least create a safe place where workers can get a hot cup of coffee, use a bathroom and perhaps benefit from some other centralized services.

CENTRAL SITE

Port Chester, which sits on Long Island Sound just below the Connecticut border, is one of those places that decided on its own to deal with the growing problem of congregating day laborers. About a dozen years ago, day laborers discovered Port Chester as a handy jumping off point for work opportunities in affluent Westchester County, New York. And while a number of gathering points had been created informally by day laborers, one of the favorites was the centrally located and bustling commuter rail station downtown. It was a situation bound for trouble as it put heavy commuter traffic into direct conflict with heavy contractor traffic, and forced well-paid white-collar commuters to work their way through a small army of hard- looking Latino immigrants.

"We saw the need several years ago," says Port Chester Mayor Gerald Logan, a Republican who is in the middle of his third two-year term. "And I mentioned it in an article in the local newspaper." As it turned out, Logan wasn't the only one thinking about the issue. Tim Ploch, the pastor at the local Holy Rosary Catholic church, also noticed, and after reading the mayor's comments in the paper, stepped up to offer his parish as the site for a day-labor center. With an identified site on the table, the Westchester Hispanic Coalition agreed to help staff the center and coordinate programs.

In stark contrast to the situation in Brewster, day laborers in Port Chester now head for a single, central site where contractors know to go when they need help. The location is handy because it's within walking distance of where many day laborers live, and is also close to the train station--some day laborers take the train to Port Chester because it's known as a work center. Perhaps equally important, it's just down a main road from a Home Depot. "So contractors can swing over to Home Depot and then swing by here," says Soraya Principe, director of the center. (In many localities Home Depots have become ground zero for conflicts over the day-laborer issue. In fact, a handful of local governments are now demanding that Home Depots and other big-box construction supply outlets create day-labor shelters on site as a condition of site plan approval.)

The center at Holy Rosary, which gets no government money, is roomy, warm and well lit. At one end, hot coffee and pastries are being served. For those who don't get work on any given day, the center offers English classes taught by volunteers. Workers who use the center also have access to services offered by the Westchester Hispanic Coalition, including help with immigration authorities or in tracking down contractors who fail to pay promised wages. Principe says the coalition enjoys about a 50 percent recovery rate.

Port Chester, though, is the clear exception when it comes to how various communities have dealt with day laborers. The official reception has been rough in a lot of places. Last September, undercover police posing as contractors arrested 30 day laborers in Houston for violating a local ordinance against soliciting work in the roadway. Last November, police in Farmingville, New York, on Long Island, arrested several day laborers for trespassing (Farmingville also has witnessed assaults on day laborers). Last December, Oconee County, Georgia, sheriff's deputies swept into a Home Depot parking lot and arrested 31 day laborers for loitering. And early in January, five day laborers were arrested in Cicero, Illinois, part of a group of 40 men in a Home Depot parking lot waiting for work. The same month, the new mayor of Morristown, New Jersey, Donald Cresitello, vowed to crack down on the overcrowding of illegal immigrants in local housing, a phenomenon known as "stacking."

Stacking is frequently citied as one of the most common and potentially dangerous public safety side effects of the day-laborer phenomenon. The high rents in Brewster (a small studio apartment goes for around $1,000 per month) make it tempting for landlords to carve houses and apartments into ever-smaller, more numerous units. Still, buildings that are carved up into multiple units can be firetraps, and also put a strain on local utilities. Some localities have beefed up inspections of properties where stacking is suspected. Others have passed local laws requiring landlords to regularly report on their tenant loads. Brewster has gone to a stricter monitoring of water use as a way to identify the practice.

While some localities try to crack down on day laborers, others are going after contractors, on the grounds that it's illegal under federal law to hire undocumented immigrants. In East Hampton Village, New York, police last fall started taking down the license plate numbers of vehicles picking up day laborers, threatening to report the contractors to federal authorities. In Riverside, California, police are enforcing "red curb" zones--where it is illegal to pull over and pick anybody up--at traditional day-labor gathering sites.

MILITANT RESPONSE

As the day-labor issue has seen increasing numbers of local flashpoints, there's also been a national backlash in the form of groups urging tough action against illegal immigrants, in general, and day laborers, in particular. Last January, immigration control activists organized "Stop the Invasion" day, which saw about 40 groups demonstrating in 20 states, from New Jersey to California.

Even some local officials are starting to lean toward the militant. "Mayors and County Executives for Immigration Reform," a coalition of local officials, is pressuring the federal government to act. "It's local governments that are experiencing the fallout of a failed federal policy," says one of the effort's founders, Mayor Mark Boughton of Danbury, Connecticut. "We're all left to our own devices to try and manage this flow of people without any support or backup from the feds, and you're seeing communities get into these bitter, divisive fights. Until we secure the borders, we're wasting our time. Things like hiring halls and day-laborer centers, that's just managing a policy and system that has spun out of control."

It is not hard to understand why there is so much tension--and even hostility--around the whole day-labor phenomenon. No local politician or chamber of commerce president would argue that groups of undocumented workers clustered along downtown sidewalks is a good thing for business, public safety or the civic image. Jane Neri, who runs a consignment shop on Main Street in Brewster, says she's seen a 70 percent decline in business over the past few years, as more day laborers have begun to congregate and then hang around downtown if not hired that morning.

Neri, who on this particular morning is complaining that she just had to clean vomit off her storefront window courtesy of a day laborer, says that her customers have told her they are afraid to run the gauntlet of men who now congregate on the sidewalks outside her shop. She doesn't blame all day laborers, just a hard-core group that seems uninterested in co-existing with the rest of the community, she says.

In talking to those on both sides of the issue, the operative emotion does seem to be fear. Mayra, who manages a laundromat on Brewster's Main Street, an unofficial gathering site for day laborers, says that the young men who frequent her place--virtually all of them undocumented--are afraid, too, especially in the wake of the school arrests. "They're afraid of immigration [officials]; they feel like"-- and here she struggles for a word--"chickens."

When asked how such fear might be diffused in Brewster, Istebon Jiminez, who came to Brewster from Mexico about 10 years ago, gained citizenship and now runs a downtown Mexican restaurant, says "communication." Yet he admits to never having approached merchants just a few doors down the street, such as Jane Neri, to talk about dealing with what even he recognizes is a problem for local business people. One significant obstacle to such contact is obvious: Jiminez, a potentially powerful emissary to the local business community because of his background and his clear understanding of the roots of tension in town, speaks very little English. Given their level of interaction, Jiminez and Neri might as well be living in different towns.

The other factor that's impossible to ignore is color. As some in Brewster point out, the village has a long history of accepting and assimilating immigrants. In the early 1900s, Irish and Italians arrived in Brewster to work at the thriving Borden condensed milk plant at the east end of Main Street and the quarries outside of town. But Brewster's liaison to the day-labor community, Victor Padilla, thinks this wave of immigrants is having a harder time of assimilating for the simple reason that "they may be a little too brown."

POLICY FAILURES

Whatever the roots of the problems, the clearest failure on the day- labor front is political and runs up and down the governmental food chain. Convoluted and complicated federal immigration laws inconsistently and sporadically applied haven't helped, nor has the fact that Congress is bitterly divided on immigration issues. States, meanwhile, are for the most part absent from the debate, as they neither have the authority to deal with immigration policy, nor suffer the consequences of local day-labor skirmishes. Counties have been a bit more involved. In fact, the Westchester County Legislature held the first of what will be a series of hearings on the day-labor issue in February, investigating how the county might step in to help.

But in the final analysis, the day-laborer conflicts continue to fall squarely in the laps of city and town governments, and most seem to experience bitter fights before things improve. The Village of Mount Kisco, a half-dozen stops south of Brewster on the same commuter rail line, is one of those places. Ten years ago, it was open warfare in the village. Mel Berger, a former local pharmacist, remembers fuming over the growing number of day laborers congregating around the village's downtown train station. "I even went as far as to call the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in New York City," says Berger. "I said, 'Come up here and arrest these people!' The INS guy laughed and said, 'What are you kidding? I could walk out my door and go around the corner and arrest 100 people right here.'"

So Mount Kisco decided to take matters into its own hands. The town launched midnight housing raids looking for code violations in dwellings known to harbor day laborers, and also passed a law restricting public solicitation of work. The flurry of activity certainly got people's attention, but not the kind that the village wanted. The Westchester Hispanic Coalition brought a discrimination suit against the village. As part of the settlement, Mount Kisco agreed to stop openly harassing Latinos, to open up a local park to the day-laborer community and to be more bilingual in official postings and signage.

At the same time, a group led by a local Presbyterian church launched an effort to find a suitable site for a day-labor center as a further way to defuse community conflict. The search committee was led by, of all people, Mel Berger, who says his view began to shift as he got to know members of the Latino community and to understand what the day- laborer phenomenon was all about. While he says the search was an eye- opening exercise in NIMBYism, the center opened in 2000.

Located in a mini-industrial park, the center is spacious, with a front room lined on one wall with banks of computers. Volunteers teach everything from English to budgeting. Hiring is handled in two ways: Unskilled laborers are listed on a first-come, first-served basis on a board in the front room. Skilled laborers--painters or roofers, for example--are matched with employers looking for such skills. On busy days, as many as 60 to 80 laborers will circulate through the center. Its $410,000 budget is covered entirely by private contributions. When it comes to the immigration status of those who use the center, "We never ask," says executive director Carola Otero Bracco.

While the situation in Mount Kisco isn't perfect--there is still tension, and day laborers report that they continue to be hassled regularly by the police--the community has clearly made progress.

If Brewster has any advantage over the Mount Kisco of 10 years ago when it comes to working through the day-labor issue, it's that key political leaders understand what the village is up against by way of bringing together a divided community. Mayor John Degnan has no interest in touching off a Mount Kisco-like war as a prelude to working things out. "It is an evolution," says Degnan, "but we've seen the successes in other communities around us. The key is going to be community involvement. Even if you make progress with a brick-and- mortar day-labor center, you still have to do a lot better job of communication within the community."

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