SILVER SPRING -- In the first wintry light of dawn, the scene has the gritty feel of a Depression-era photograph: Clusters of men in work clothes, hands jammed in the pockets of hooded sweat shirts, wait in the cold for the offer of an honest day's labor.
On closer inspection, the United States of the 1990s emerges: The men cluster around a 7-Eleven store, and they chat in Spanish. For this parking lot off the Capital Beltway is Maryland's largest outdoor hiring hall for immigrant workers.
U.S. immigration agents have raided the lot in the past, and local merchants have complained bitterly that the Latino men who congregate there drive away customers.
But now a nonprofit group from Takoma Park has set up a trailer there and tries to make order of chaos by matching employers and immigrant laborers through a computer data base.
There's only one hitch: Almost nobody's hiring.
"What little I am making here I could have made in my own country," lamented Santo Amaya, a 30-year-old Salvadoran laborer who traveled to Maryland eight months ago and, like many new Central American arrivals, immediately headed for the lot at University Boulevard and Piney Branch Road. "I work two days a week maybe, and some weeks I don't work at all."
Carlos Suria, 35, who has a wife and four children to support in El Salvador, said he has worked only a few days since October, when he lost a regular cleaning job. It has been a struggle just to pay the rent on the $700-a-month apartment he shares in Langley Park with three other immigrants.
"Now I am going through the same situation that I did back home -- working just to survive," said Mr. Suria. "I've been running a fever for several days, but if I buy medicine, I won't have rent money at the end of the month."
More than 560 workers have signed up with the Day Laborer Assistance Project set up by Central American Solidarity and Assistance of Maryland. About 150 workers -- mostly Salvadorans and Guatemalans -- hang around the parking lot six mornings a week.
On a very good day CASA will place 15 workers, said Gustavo Torres, the young Colombian who keeps tabs on the data base. On an average day, only a half-dozen immigrants will find jobs that usually pay $5 to $8 an hour.
Others, maybe 10 a day, skirt the new system and pick up jobs outside the trailer. Some contractors apparently aren't eager to register with CASA or leave any record of their hiring practices. Others have dropped by the parking lot for so long that the custom of picking up day laborers by the 7-Eleven dies hard.
Sharon O'Day, a CASA attorney, is trying to convince both employers and workers that it makes sense to use the job center. With just a phone call, employers can find a day laborer who has a legal work permit, she says. CASA doesn't ask workers for proof of legal status, but it will screen day laborers if an employer specifically requests legal workers.
And workers hired through the job center can be assured that if a boss doesn't pay, CASA will help them.
"If you get in a truck with a guy named Joe and he doesn't pay you, I can't sue a guy named Joe," Ms. O'Day said. CASA has taken more than 100 cases of alleged worker abuse to court.
Stephen Cirbee, construction chief for the I. A. Baker Co. of Takoma Park, uses the job center and likes it.
"Before, when you pulled into the parking lot, they just swarmed around you," he said. "There was no control at all, and that turned people off."
Now, Mr. Cirbee said, he can order up a handful of $7-an-hour laborers by phone.
"My honest opinion is that these guys are harder workers than Americans will ever be again," Mr. Cirbee said.
That kind of attitude irks Dennis Merchant, one of three black Americans who were looking for bricklaying work at the parking lot one morning last week.
"That's what's the matter with America today. They're bringing all these foreigners in here, and that's why Americans are out of work," he said. "I've got nothing against them, but they're cheaper labor, and I need the money bad."
Immigration officials have not raided the lot since 1990, partly because most Salvadorans and Guatemalans now can work legally under temporary amnesty programs. But they say they watch the area for employers who break the law by knowingly hiring illegal aliens.
"We have neither the resources nor the desire to detain people just for working without authorization," said Louis D. Crocetti Jr., deputy district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Baltimore office.
The job center, which opened in November, has done little to pacify merchants whose stores line the parking lot. They say the men milling around outside their stores are bad for business.
"My sales have dropped. My customers go to a different store because they just feel uncomfortable coming here," said Sammy Garraway, manager of a Duron paint store.
Mr. Garraway, an immigrant from the English-speaking island of Dominica, said that he could "relate" to the workers' situation but that the parking lot also attracted "a large number of drunkards" who don't want to work.
Jerry Rosenthal, whose Washington real estate company owns the
stores and parking area, has let the CASA trailer sit on the lot rent-free until the end of April in an effort to control the situation. Mr. Rosenthal would not say what he would do after that.
Eugene Sadick, vice president of the Clifton Park Civic Association, a nearby middle-class community, said the workers' presence had scared off neighbors who were used to running into the 7-Eleven. He said the parking lot also seemed to be a magnet for homeless people and alcoholics at night.
But since CASA set up the job center, "I think the situation is much better now than it was six months ago," he said.
CASA officials acknowledge that the parking lot has attracted vagrants, whom they say they are powerless to control. But most people who congregate there are workers, they say, and by helping them form a day laborers' association, they hope to keep the lot clean and reduce the number of men hanging around.
For the immigrants, the big issue is getting a payday. They talk among themselves about the chances the United States will climb out of the recession and the chances that peace will take root in their own countries.Most take a wait-and-see attitude on both counts.
"Today is bad, tomorrow worse," said Celso De Leon, a 27-year-old Guatemalan. "Every day there's more unemployment, higher prices, more workers, lower wages.
"But many of us can't go home because someone in the army or the guerrillas or somewhere else is looking for us."