Shoring Up a First Step for Immigrants

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By Charlie Warner, Special to the Independent

For many immigrants without language skills or education, day labor jobs in construction trades provide an opportunity to ascend the economic ladder. For nearly 20 years, the Cross Cultural Council in Laguna Beach assured some stability to those on the first rung by establishing a one-room hiring hall on the shoulder of Laguna Canyon Road.

Workers wait their turn for jobs outside the Day Worker Center in Laguna Canyon.

Now, the Trump administration’s immigration policies – stepping up deportations, restricting entry from specific countries, plans for a border wall and an executive order blocking funding for sanctuary cities – is rippling into the local economy in an unexpected way.

Every day, 30 to 50 workers still arrive, hoping to pick up a day’s pay by waiting for a hiring homeowner or contractor on the unpaved highway easement with shading trees and picnic benches.

Instead, it’s the organization itself that seems most buffeted by political tailwinds. Board member Martin Tobin said, “the political climate has made it very difficult for us to get money from outside contributors,” in an appeal for an extra $15,000 in funding during a city budget hearing May 23.

“Unfortunately, we will not be able to function without this request,” David Peck, the council’s chair, said in a May 7 letter to elected officials.

The letter included a memo showing the organization’s total annual budget at $48,000 with a $15,000 projected deficit in the year beginning July 1. The city already contributes $15,000 towards its operation, while contractor and worker fees nearly match that. Another $4,000 comes from board and community contributions, including $1,400 raised in the annual tamale sale.

By comparison, the council reported receiving $91,879 in contributions in 2015, the most recent figures available on guidestar.org, which compiles financial information on nonprofits. No specific donors were listed.

City officials agreed to Peck’s request. City Manager John Pietig said the day worker center “has been very helpful for the quality of life of our town and for the police department. They’re having difficulty getting funded for political considerations out of their control.”

The mission statement of the cultural council, “helping neighbors bridge cultural differences to benefit the entire community” plays out in two ways. The nonprofit runs the La Playa Center, which provides English as a second language classes and childcare at the Boys and Girls Club, and since 1998 the Laguna Day Worker Center in Laguna Canyon.

“Prior to that there was no real organization, and workers were scattered around town by the hardware store and Circle K,” said Peck. He described workers fighting and competing over customers and the lack of a central location for workers to congregate.

“Now the site operates on a lottery system. A number is drawn and the workers wait their turn. There is also staff that act as a liaison between contractor and worker,” he said.

“We do not check immigration status. All we ask for is an address and phone number,” said Peck, referring to the workers. “The police love us. They are very supportive. Prior to our involvement, workers were all over the city, and now they are all in one place. I think they know it’s a win-win for the city.”

While not officially a sanctuary city, Laguna operates like one. Such a declaration typically means police would not aid or assist immigration officials and agents in enforcement of immigration law. In practice, local police investigating criminal violations do not ask about immigration status, said a person with knowledge of police department policy. Such inquiries would discourage immigrants from reporting crimes or acting as witnesses, the person said. Police officials did not return calls seeking comment.

Peck is untroubled by the lack of an official sanctuary declaration. “I don’t know if that it’s necessary,” he said. “We are a very progressive city, and the community is very supportive.”

Some years ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents showed up at the downtown Laguna bus station, Peck recalled. They questioned riders as they exited the bus, which originated in Santa Ana. “No one showed up at the Worker Center the next day. Other than that, we’ve never had any problems,” he said.

On a recent morning at 6 a.m., I talked a bit with one of the workers, who said he only occasionally sought work at the day labor site. He had driven from Santa Ana. Coincidentally, he has a paper route for the Indy. He had bandages over each of his fingertips. I didn’t ask why.

According to the American Community Survey in 2015, of the 950,000 foreign born residents in Orange County, 48% are not U.S. citizens. From the same survey nationally, there were 41.7 million foreign born residents, 53% of which are not U.S. citizens.

“Since the administration change there has been an anxiety, but I think everyone has that feeling,” Peck said. “We have not seen a drop in our numbers in attendance,” he said. By comparison, the number of workers dropped noticeably during the recession, and has since comeback.

The worker I spoke with said the same, saying the recession in 2008 was a big setback.

And the number of La Playa students, trying to absorb enough English to navigate the community and the school system, has increased, Peck said. La Playa hosts three classes for 25 students a day and the center also provides child care for six to eight infants and toddlers of its students. The La Playa Center is not specifically for Hispanic students, as the name suggests. The current ESL class enrollment includes learners from Asia and the Middle East, including a student from Tehran, Peck said.

The worker I talked with was warm and friendly, and somewhat open, though he declined to give his name. He showed me a picture of his brother in an Army dress uniform. He also said his nephew was a contractor, who he sometimes works for. With a smile and a handshake, he returned to the group of other workers.

 

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