More cities switch from foe to friend of day laborers

Houston is latest to help these job seekers get work.

A plumber pulls up in a rusty pickup and enters the building. Inside, he asks for three men. Checking a clipboard, an organizer calls three names into his bullhorn.

The contractor offers the trio $7 an hour - the minimum wage here - for a day's work. The men hesitate. It's late in the morning, and this may be their last chance to work today. They decide not to bargain and pile into the pickup.

It's a typical morning at the Oscar Romero Workers Center in Houston. For the would-be workers inside, many of whom are in the US illegally, the building is a big improvement over the outdoor location where they used to congregate in the hope of picking up a day's work.

The new center for day laborers - a bingo hall by night and an employment clearinghouse by day - is an example of a quiet change taking place in how cities deal with the steady flow of job seekers from south of the border.

Rather than rounding up these illegal immigrants, as has been done for decades, a growing number of communities are creating centers, complete with English classes and air conditioning, where workers can meet employers.

For the workers, "the change is incredible," says Colombian Edgar Viveros. "We were like horses in a corral. When it was summer, we were dying of heat, and when it was winter, we were freezing."

The shift in attitude has been gradual and has spread throughout the United States along with day laborers. But controversy has grown right along with this new "helping hand" approach, and day laborers are still far from welcome in a number of cities. Opponents say it promotes increased illegal immigration and brings down wages for skilled US workers. But backers say it represents a new realism on the part of officials: These day laborers aren't going to go away, they are necessary, and it's better to give them a safe, sanitary place to gather than to endure street loitering.

"In a period of such economic prosperity, these people are filling a need," says City Councilor Gordon Quan, who spearheaded Houston's center. "These guys needed a little air conditioning and a toilet. But more importantly, they needed a place to improve their skills while we work on a longterm solution."

The first day-labor centers cropped up in California in the late 1980s. Today, there are about 50 nationwide. Some are not much more than a collection of immigrants in parking lots, while others, such as Houston's, are more sophisticated.

In Austin, Texas, city officials opened a downtown site in 1993 - a simple vacant lot with benches. But in 1999, it opened an air-conditioned building for day-laborers, and today spends $250,000 a year on rent, shuttle service, and staffing.

Possibly the most comprehensive center is in Silver Spring, Md. The two-story house has an annual operating budget of $385,000, and provides job-training classes, English literacy, health education, and a variety of services for women.

The Maryland center is an example of how attitudes have changed. Immigrants began congregating in a local 7-Eleven parking lot as early as 1984. After years of complaints, INS agents rounded up a group of illegal immigrants in 1990 and, in the process, caused a traffic accident. The community felt it needed a different solution. The result: a day-labor center, which opened in 1993.

Much of the media's attention has focused on communities erupting in anger - and even violence - toward day laborers, such as last year's murders on Long Island. But in general, day-labor advocates say city councils recognize the worth in providing a place for them to gather.

"That is not to say that there aren't tensions in other cities," says Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza in Washington. "But most communities are working on ways to ease tensions instead of escalate them."

While attitudes toward immigrants tend to ebb and flow with the nation's economic tide, she sees these centers as proof that sentiments are softening - and it's happening in the most unexpected places.

Unions, long opponents of day-laborers, have now taken a leading role in working with them. In Houston, AFL-CIO officials visit the center once a week and give lectures in Spanish on workers' rights, labor laws, and unions.

"These workers are our competition," says E. Dale Wortham, president of the Harris County AFL-CIO. He wants to see the $7-an-hour wage - the minimum required at the Houston center - raised to what private shops charge. "Nobody can compete with $7 an hour," says Wortham. "We are trying to close that gap."

Staffers here say they don't ask the immigration status of the workers. INS regulations don't apply to independent contractors or day laborers, and no federal law prohibits cities from facilitating such work.

And while many day laborers are here illegally, many are US citizens who are simply between jobs. "Those communities that are swept up [in] anti-immigrant ideology end up not solving the problem," says Robin Toma, executive director of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. "They spend more time and money picking up people and patrolling the streets than it takes to create a functional place for day laborers to meet contractors."

But even at the best centers, there are still problems. Shortly after the Houston center opened on May 1, a group of immigrants began to congregate closer to the freeway. They charge less, $5 or $6 an hour, and don't have to wait on a list.

That angers many center laborers. "We are all here because we want to obey the law," says Marcos Acosta, a legal resident who's been in the US for seven years.

Suddenly, his name is called over the bullhorn, and he leaps up. "I have to go to work," he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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