The arrest of two dozen men waiting for work in a convenience store parking lot on charges of being illegal immigrants renews the urgency to establish an indoor employment center in Southeast Baltimore, say city officials and advocates.
Despite last month's arrests, a throng of mostly immigrant day laborers continue congregating outside the 7-Eleven at Broadway and Lombard Street, seeking to earn their living each day as part of the area's thriving underground economy.
But immigrant advocates say the system desperately needs to be changed. They say some workers are exploited by unscrupulous employers who prey on Latino immigrants who have little knowledge of English and of American workplace rights. And some area residents complain that the crowded street corner - where workers can often be found on sidewalks and medians - has become a neighborhood eyesore.
An indoor employment center, advocates say, would connect immigrant workers with employers who promise to pay fair wages and provide safe workplace conditions - while also offering classes in English and job skills.
Last year, the city approved $75,000 toward a center to be operated by CASA of Maryland, the state's largest immigrant advocacy organization. CASA says it would need a total of $128,000 for renovations and operating funds.
Today, CASA has zeroed in on an abandoned brick warehouse at East Fayette and Madeira streets, and Mayor Sheila Dixon said she is eager to get it open. CASA operates a similar center in Wheaton and another in Silver Spring, which opened in 1991 and is thought to be the first of its kind in the country. Both are funded in part by Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
"The mayor is very interested in moving forward on this project," said Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for the mayor. "In the coming weeks, we are hoping to visit Montgomery County and see how their worker center is doing. Then, with CASA and community and corporate partners, we can really kick the ball off."
Neighborhood acceptance will be key to a center's success. Elsewhere, work centers have sparked disputes, driving deep wedges in communities with a mix of anger, fear and frustration.
In Gaithersburg in Montgomery County, elected officials, residents and advocates have been embroiled in an emotional battle over a county-funded center for more than a year, with some objecting to a tax-payer funded effort that could help illegal immigrants. The issue has divided Herndon, Va., where several local officials were voted out of office last year because they pledged support for a center.
And at an open-air hiring site in Phoenix, Ariz., merchants hired off-duty police officers to drive day laborers off their properties - creating a standoff with immigrant workers and their supporters who boycotted in protest. The city has been reluctant to intervene because a state law prohibits public funding for work centers.
Even so, experts say that despite growing local debates over immigration policy, controversies over labor centers tend to be rare.
"In most places, work centers are established with little fanfare and little controversy," said Nik Theodore, director of the center for urban economic development at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the co-author of a study titled "On the Corner, Day Labor in the United States."
The report, published last year, estimated 117,600 day laborers exist nationwide, earning an average of $10 per hour in fields such as construction and landscaping. The study found workers reported high rates of injury, abuse on the job, wage theft and violations of basic labor safety standards.
Theodore said cities have had success establishing labor centers when they bring together stakeholders early in the planning.
"That doesn't mean there aren't still NIMBY [Not In My Backyard] issues, but in many cases, any kind of concern that residents feel gets allayed through the planning process."
CASA employees say they have spent the better part of a year researching potential sites and reaching out to Southeast Baltimore neighborhood groups, merchants, residents and religious leaders to build support for a center. They say Baltimore has been more welcoming to immigrant workers than other cities and that many community residents in Southeast Baltimore have voiced support for a center.
Advocates also say that the center would aid the variety of workers who typically flock to 7-Eleven: immigrants, both legal and illegal, as well as U.S. citizens.
While some residents are concerned about the location, they do not object to the center's concept, said Elizabeth Alex, Baltimore manager of CASA of Maryland.
"What happened in Herndon and other cities is horrible," she said. "We haven't encountered that kind of blatant racism from anyone. Everyone knows the problems exist, the [recent arrests] exemplify that. Almost everyone agrees that the worker center is an ideal solution."
But last spring, the first site CASA proposed at East Lombard and South Eden streets was rejected by parents at City Springs Elementary School, adjacent to the proposed site.
"I'm not against anyone having a job and feeding their families, everyone has the right to seek employment," said Sharone Henderson, president of the school's parent teacher organization and mother of a second-grader. "But not close to the school."
Henderson said female students have complained about being harassed by men at the 7-Eleven, which is around the corner from the school.
"One of them said something to me, by the way," said Henderson. "This is a K-8 school. And frankly, these kids see a lot of stuff in the community as it is. They don't need to see that."
CASA held a meeting with parents to hear their concerns and explained that most of the men are simply seeking an honest living. After parents expressed their discontent, the organization abandoned the proposal and began searching for a new location.
The present proposal in the tiny neighborhood that borders Butchers Hill and Patterson Place has received mixed support.
"Of the active members of our organization, we have not heard one negative thing," said Richard Hackett, president of the Butchers Hill Association Inc, who wrote a letter to the city expressing his support for the center.
Hackett said the organization has worked to reach out to Latino residents, translating parts of its community newsletter into Spanish and making plans to work with the Hispanic Apostolate of Catholic Charities to support students in its English classes.
"I think the makeup of this area is culturally diverse and very tolerant," said Hackett, a resident of the area since the mid-1990s. "I have seen this neighborhood change. On Broadway, it used to be failing business after failing business. The Hispanic community brought revitalization to the area. When you live here, you see it on a daily basis, and you can't help but embrace it."
But those who oppose the employment site say their concerns have nothing to do with diversity and everything to do with location.
Dennis Sherman, president of CARE, said he is worried about increased traffic along Fayette Street and a possible decrease in property values in this small residential neighborhood, bounded by Washington, Fayette and McElderry streets and Patterson Park Avenue.
"People are starting to rehab their homes, and their property values are going up," said Sherman, who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years. "We don't think this is going to help."