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Thursday, December 30, 1999

Finding work safely

City-sponsored center is credited with getting day laborers off street corners, bringing order to the hiring process

By KENNETH MA
WORKING WAGES

Before the sun rises each morning, Cristobal stands on a dusty strip along Laguna Canyon Road, eagerly awaiting a potential employer to drive by and offer him a temporary job.
Each year the Border Patrol is making more than a million apprehensions of persons who flagrantly violate our nation's laws by unlawfully crossing U.S. borders to work and to receive public assistance, usually with the aid of fraudulent documents. Such entry is a misdemeanor, and if repeated becomes punishable as a felony. Over four million illegal immigrants live in the United States--some estimate over five million--and, this does not include the nearly three million aliens amnestied under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

"It is a lot easier here to make money to support my family than it is in Mexico," said Cristobal, a 20-year-old undocumented immigrant who has no work permit.

The Santa Ana resident is among many undocumented immigrants looking for work at the city-sponsored Laguna Day Worker Center at the north end of town. The site opened in August to improve safety and create a more orderly method for immigrants to seek day laborer jobs, officials said.

The center is run by the Cross Cultural Council, a Laguna Beach nonprofit group founded to improve relations between Latino immigrants and other residents.

The organization, which is funded by donations, received $15,000 from the City Council this month to help support the day worker center.

Day labor "is now much better organized and safer for everyone," said Councilman Paul Freeman.

"Before setting up the [center], we had people looking for day work in residential locations. Residents feel more comfortable that it is in one spot."

Laborers soliciting work on street corners were at risk of being hit by cars, said David Peck, chairman of the Cross Cultural Council and an English professor at Cal State Long Beach.

He said $3,000 a month pays for two full-time employees, who serve as translators to coordinate the hiring.

"Homeowners used to dread going out there because their Spanish skills weren't good enough to communicate," he said.

Peck said he hopes to expand the program next year to include English and citizenship classes for the workers. Snooze and lose

About 80 laborers gather each day at the center, which opens at 6 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays.

Priority numbers are issued to the first 30 people. Those arriving after the drawing are given numbers in sequence between 31 and 80.

Vehicles typically begin to drive into the pickup site shortly after dawn to meet a sea of laborers waving their numbers. Employers and laborers then negotiate the terms of their employment, including wages.

Most of the men work six to 10 hours a day at physical labor, such as yard work, cleaning garages, helping residents move, painting, roofing and digging ditches.

Women laborers, who are not allowed to stand along the roadside center, have their day employment prearranged. They usually do housekeeping or baby-sitting.

All laborers are registered at the center before they are allowed to work. They must provide an address, date of birth, telephone number, a list of skills and have their picture taken. Employers also must provide their phone numbers.

Peck said the registration process allows both employees and employers to be tracked.

The immigration man

Since most of the workers are undocumented immigrants without work permits, their biggest fear is deportation by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Cristobal said the agency raided the area two or three times a week before the center was sanctioned in August. Some of the workers were arrested and sent back to Mexico.

"We are aware of a lot of day-laborer sites in Orange County," said Sharon Gavin, a spokeswoman for the western regional office of the INS. "But the day laborers are of a low priority."

She said the agency's highest priorities are enforcing border smuggling and hiring practices by corporations and contractors that offer permanent positions to undocumented immigrants, taking jobs away from U.S. citizens.

Peck said he is not worried about the agency's presence in Laguna Beach because he rarely sees agents in the area anymore.

Enforcing immigration laws is neither a job for the Cross Cultural Council nor the Police Department, he said.

Graves said the workers perform an essential service.

"These guys will come in and work harder than anyone can imagine, and it is mainly to feed their families," she said.