Waiting for work, help in finding it

The Baltimore Sun

GAITHERSBURG -- It hadn't been light for long, and already 30 men had gathered on the parking lot and yellowing lawn between Grace United Methodist Church and a strip of small businesses. They stood in clumps, sipping coffee or staring off, the telltale signs of labor apparent in their dirt-striped jeans and in faces creased by the sun.

Occasionally, when a truck or car turned off Route 355 into the lot, a group of men would press toward it, clustering around the window. Words were exchanged in a jerky mix of English and Spanish, and eventually someone, or maybe a couple of lucky people, would climb into the vehicle before it drove back down the road and disappeared.

The routine - a scene repeated in an untold number of communities around the country - unfolds nearly every day in this middle-class Montgomery County suburb. Between 6 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., and sometimes later, 50, 60 or even 100 workers, the majority of whom are Latino immigrants who entered the country illegally, show up in hopes of getting hired for painting, landscaping or other manual labor.

Almost everyone in town seems to agree on one point: They are not happy with the unofficial, open-air labor market. Nearby residents and business owners complain that the men create a nuisance. The workers say the situation is unsafe and that they're vulnerable to exploitation.

But two years after the community began debating the issue, a solution remains elusive. Many residents, including a majority of the City Council, want to establish a center that would get day laborers off the street and connect them to employers.

The county has set aside $125,000 for such a center, but questions persist about where it would be located and how it would operate. And as a national debate about immigration swirls, the push for a center has been opposed by those who are against offering support to people who entered the country illegally.

Several weeks ago, the City Council rejected the 28th proposed site. Mayor Sidney Katz says he does not know if an employment center will ever materialize.

"I can't tell you," he said. "But we're continuing to work hard to find a solution for the neighborhood where the people stand, for the church, the business community and all involved."

City Manager David Humpton, who has been charged with finding a suitable location, said some people have advised him to "stay away" from the issue. "But as local government, it's difficult for us to turn our backs," he said.

The debate about the laborers has unfolded in a community that is increasingly diverse. Nearly 30 percent of Montgomery County residents were born outside the United States, according to recently released figures for 2005. The 2000 census found that Latinos represented nearly 20 percent of Gaithersburg residents, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the figure is now as high as 40 percent, advocates say.

The signs of this change are everywhere: in the seemingly ubiquitous se habla espanol notices posted on the city's storefronts; in the clusters of women speaking Spanish in Olde Towne; in the taquerias and grocery stores stocked with products from Latin America.

For the most part, Gaithersburg has appeared to welcome such diversity, but tensions have been exposed in the search for a solution to the men on the parking lot. An informal group of officials and community leaders began meeting to discuss the issue a couple of years ago. Residents, business owners and church members were complaining that the workers sometimes drank, catcalled and urinated in the parking lot.

Montgomery County already had two county-funded day laborer centers in Wheaton and Silver Spring. The Gaithersburg group began laying plans for one, secured money from the County Council and leased a building.

But some residents and businesses objected to the decision-making process and the plan was dropped. A task force eventually recommended opening a center, but every suggested site has been rejected. And there are disagreements over whether CASA de Maryland, which runs the other centers, should be involved and whether to offer services beyond English classes.

"For the last 1 1/2 years, every solution we brought to the table was derailed," said David Rocha, a local pastor who fled Colombia 15 years ago and worked as a day laborer when he first arrived. "That's why I say it's a problem of the human heart. What we need is a place where people can be educated and empowered to live with dignity."

But Stephen Schreiman of the Maryland chapter of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a group opposed to providing help to illegal immigrants, objects to a center of any kind.

"Not only do I not want it in my backyard, but if I don't want it in mine, why should anyone have it in theirs?" said Schreiman, who lives in Gaithersburg. "Why are we encouraging illegal activity? As soon as someone starts to enforce our laws, people will go away. They will go home because they can't get jobs."

Some who live or work nearby say that they have conflicting feelings. "It's not wrong that they're looking for jobs," said Nancy King, 26, who works at a pawnshop near the workers' gathering spot.

Her parents are immigrants from El Salvador, she said, so she can relate to the workers' struggles. But she is troubled by the situation.

"Sometimes, I'm the only one here" in the shop, she said. "Just seeing a group of men, it's uncomfortable. ... I get scared."

A center would resolve the problem, she said, but the question of where to put it stumps her.

"Because I have two kids, I wouldn't want it near my home either," she said.

Basil Waters, who has owned Waters Appliance Service in Olde Towne since 1964, also expressed mixed feelings. A center could work, he said, but he doesn't want one in a business district.

"I definitely support people who want to work, but I'm not willing to spend taxpayers' money" on illegal immigrants," he said.

While the debate goes on, some of the problems have been temporarily addressed. The owner of the shopping center allows workers to gather there until 9:30 a.m., and the church lets them use its bathroom. Some neighbors complain that men linger all day. But calls to the police are down, said Diane Tillery, a community services officer.

On a recent morning, Luis Jiminez, 37, who is from Guatemala and dreams of one day becoming an electrician or computer programmer, was waiting for work.

"I bet you 13 times percent that the people against a labor center, if they were in this situation, they'd say, 'Yes, that's a good idea,'" he said. "People, they treat you like, I don't want to say the word," he said. "If there's a center, there will be specific rules."

He pulled a $180 check from his wallet and waved it. Someone had hired him for two days of landscaping, then paid him with a bad check. It is the fourth time in recent months that an employer has cheated him, he said.

The day was growing hot, and men were drifting into the covered breezeway and under a pine tree by the church. Some had been there for hours when Rocha and a congregant arrived with juice and ham sandwiches.

A car pulled up - a possible chance at work - and the men crowded around.

"That's one of the things we like to avoid," Rocha said.

His vision is to develop a community center that would offer classes, job training, and health and immigration services, "laying a foundation for this community to live in a decent way."

"I'm not going to quit," he said as he handed out the last of the sandwiches. "I'm going to be here, and we hope every day for a solution."

rona.marech@baltsun.com

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