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04/09/2001 - Monday - Page A 25

Farmingville Should Learn a Lesson

By Robin S. Toma.

Robin S. Toma, executive director of the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations, is co-author of the study"Day Laborer Hiring Sites: Constructive Approaches to Community Conflict."

SUFFOLK COUNTY is at a fork in the road. One road is the worn, well-traveled one that takes the community through several stops-INS arrests, police harassment, court battles over anti-day-laborer ordinances, deepening divisions, even hate crimes and xenophobia.

This road in the end, however, usually leads to the same place as the other: a hiring center in an area designated and designed for day laborers to meet employers in an orderly and safe fashion.

The other road is less traveled, because it is for those local governments that have learned from the experiences of other communities. This road leads directly to the practical approach to the problem-to day-laborer hiring centers.

And, most importantly, the less-traveled road bypasses the divisive battles that are costly not only to taxpayer funds but set back efforts to build healthy, multicultural communities, which are at the core of our country's, and the earth's, future.

For now, though, Farmingville must decide what to do in the wake of County Executive Robert Gaffney's veto of a bill that would have partially funded a hiring hall site. But the controversy in Farmingville is not unique. Throughout the country-in communities such as Seattle, Dallas, Houston, Silver Spring, Md., Denton, Texas, and Glendale, Calif.-people have gone through similar protracted, contentious battles over what to do about day-laborer hiring sites.

It begins with the growth in numbers of men, mostly Latino men born in countries south of the border, but sometimes they are also African Americans, Asians and whites. They gather each morning in a visible spot in hopes of getting a job for modest pay, usually involving hard labor that others will not do.

Soon, businesses and residents complain about day laborers gathering.

Complaints usually stem from the site's unsuitability for the function it is now serving. For example, no trash cans means litter is left. If there is no access to restrooms, some men relieve themselves wherever they can.

If the site is not organized for handling the informal contracting process, the workers stand and trucks and cars stop where they may pose a hazard. These are practical problems with straightforward solutions.

But more often than not, the controversy becomes infused with other issues and larger political matters. The appearance of large numbers of men, usually Latino and dressed in clothes appropriate for the manual labor they are hired to do, often unnerves many middle-class communities.

Understandably, residents may be unaccustomed and uneasy about the men's presence, that they may speak little English, or have customs that clash with ours. Most accept the stereotype that all the Latino day laborers are illegal immigrants who have no right to be in the country, let alone in their town. And some believe the notion that anything short of deportation, such as a community center, would break the law.

Not surprisingly, the complaint cycle begins: "Let's have the police run them out of town!" That is often followed by: "Let's set up a law to make it illegal for them to look for work in our town!" Or, "Somebody should call the INS and deport all of them!" After those efforts have been tried, at much cost to taxpayers and community relations, there are always men still waiting for contractors or homeowners to employ them.

Eventually, the community turns to the practical solutions of creating places where day laborers and employers can meet in an orderly fashion. They come to recognize that the demand for labor is driving the supply and that the community benefits from having a pool of affordable labor to do brief home improvement or landscaping jobs. There is nothing illegal about creating a center to address this community issue.In fact, research shows that a center is well worth the problems it avoids. First, it is the most effective approach to reducing complaints. By having staff on site, it can assure orderly and effective hiring. For example, by setting up a drive-through system off the streets for worker pick-up, traffic problems are avoided. And by having a lottery, or "first-come, first-served" sign in the method of job distribution, workers no longer rush toward vehicles. Second, a center provides a place where employers and day laborers can settle disputes, such as failure to pay the promised wage or unsatisfactory work performance. Third, it provides a safer, supervised environment permitting women participants and greater ethnic diversity. Finally, a hiring center gives a sense of community and organization to workers and employers, allowing better communication among them and the rest of the community. Such communication is critical to the meaningful resolution of any issues that may arise.

But many local governments choose to spend public funds on police time focused on the workers, along with precious law enforcement and criminal justice system resources used to prosecute men in their search for work. And where laws banning the solicitation of work are passed with no adequate hiring center in place, hundreds of thousands public dollars are spent to defend against constitutional challenges. And the Immigration and Naturalization Service cannot provide the panacea. Nowhere has the agency's arrests succeeded in eliminating day laborer hiring sites. Even if some laborers are undocumented immigrants, there are always some, and often many, who have the legal right to remain in this country. Men also return to the "corners" despite the police and INS because the demand for their labor is there. This gives them a chance to earn money that helps their families.

Police often play a critical role in resolving controversy and making the hiring center solution work. The police understand that the best use of their resources is not by urging day laborers to leave an area when they are only seeking work. The police can establish a positive working relationship and lines of communication with day laborer leaders and key stakeholders so that particular individuals (whether they are day laborers or not) who violate the rights of others or refuse to obey rules necessary for public safety and health can be dealt with.

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