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Day Laborer Issue Goes to Trial in New York Suburbs

Fri September 15, 2006 - Northeast Edition
Jim Fitzgerald - ASSOCIATED PRESS



MAMARONECK, NY (AP) The landscaper’s pickup truck stopped near a group of men desperate for work, but it was a policeman on a bicycle who first approached. The Village of Mamaroneck cop stared at the driver from behind sunglasses and slowly circled the truck.

The patrolman didn’t say anything, and when he eventually pedaled away one man hopped into the truck for a day’s work trimming the hedges or weeding the gardens at some of Westchester County’s gracious homes. But the encounter was emblematic of the uneasy relationship between day laborers, most of them Hispanic and many of them illegal immigrants, in Mamaroneck and many other communities where they gather in parking lots or on sidewalks to solicit work.

The tension in Mamaroneck is so strong that in February, the town prohibited the use of a park as a worker pickup site and began closely monitoring the laborers and potential employers on the street. Seven day laborers, some of them illegal immigrants, sued, and the case went to trail Sept. 11.

With the number of immigrants in the nation’s suburbs soaring, day laborers have become a key element in the debate over illegal immigration. Some towns are trying to accommodate the workers and some are trying to legislate them away.

When Mamaroneck cracked down on the laborers, the laborers went to court and sought an injunction against what they describe as official harassment that violates their rights to free speech, free association and equal protection. The workers, all using the name John Doe in the lawsuit, claim that the village “has embarked on a deliberate and coordinated campaign to harass plaintiffs and other Latino day laborers to deter them from soliciting work in the village.”

In court papers, one plaintiff said police detained him in a contractor’s truck for two hours and never told him why. Another claims an officer said to him, “Why don’t you go back to your own country?”

Village lawyer Kevin Plunkett denied any wrongdoing, saying Sept. 6 that the police presence “was necessary and reasonable.”

“Officers have been very patient and understanding,” he said. “There’s been no misconduct, no targeting.”

Judge Colleen McMahon suggested at a pretrial court session that the immigration status of the plaintiffs could determine the outcome, at least for the free speech and free association claims.

“Different plaintiffs may have different First Amendment rights,” she said, after noting that each John Doe would probably be asked on the stand whether he is a legal or illegal immigrant.

The day laborers are not demanding that the village establish a hiring site; their lead lawyer, Alan Levine, said Mamaroneck has no obligation to do so. Their advocates hope to raise enough money to rent a storefront that could provide the laborers with shelter, an organized hiring system, and training in English, health and citizenship, said Mariana Boneo, executive director of the Hispanic Resource Coalition in Mamaroneck.

Until January, men made themselves available to construction or landscaping contractors by gathering in the parking lot at Columbus Park. The plaintiffs said the typical gathering was 50 to 100 workers. Mayor Philip Trifiletti, who is named as a defendant along with the police chief, said it got to be 200 at times.

The plaintiffs said the hiring site caused no increase in crime or other violations; Trifiletti said there were incidents of fighting, drug use and harassment of women.

The village trustees closed the site as of Feb. 1.

Eventually, the laborers moved to the village’s main street, and now gather there singly or in small groups. The plaintiffs claim that has led to police harassment and to selective enforcement of traffic laws to make it difficult for employers to pick up workers.

On a recent Thursday morning, men looking for work kept an eye out for the police and would give only their first names out of a fear of retaliation. Each man questioned said he had been harassed.

Jesus, waiting with several other men outside a Hess service station, said through a translator, “They give tickets to the contractors. There used to be room for the contractors to stop and there used to be more work. I don’t work every day now.”

Marcos, who said he had a wife and five children in Guatemala, said he no longer earns enough to send money to his family.

“At this point, it’s only enough for me to get by. They can’t rely on me any more.”

Plunkett, the village attorney, denied selective enforcement, saying, “If a contractor who comes by this place has a vehicle that’s not inspected or otherwise has a violation of law then they’re going to be treated like anyone else who has the same violation.”

He and the mayor said the system is working fine now and that a committee of worker advocates, village officials and clergy — which tried and failed to come up with a settlement of the lawsuit — could handle problems case-by-case.

“If it was broken, it’s fixed,” Plunkett said.

Lawyers say there isn’t much specific precedent for the White Plains case. In May, a federal judge prohibited the city of Redondo Beach, CA, from arresting day laborers for violating a local ordinance against soliciting work in public.

Meanwhile, states and communities have been addressing the immigration issue in different ways. States approved approximately 60 new laws in the past few months, overwhelmingly restrictive or punitive. In July, Hazleton, PA, imposed $1,000 fines on landlords who rent to illegal immigrants, denied business permits to companies that give them jobs and made English the city’s official language. That prompted several other towns to draft similar laws, but Hazleton delayed enforcing the law after getting sued.

On the other hand, Avon Park, FL, voted down an ordinance that would have imposed fines on anyone offering jobs, services or housing to illegal immigrants.

Boneo, who may be a witness at the Mamaroneck trial, said it’s unfortunate the issue has ended up in court.

“The lawsuit, that’s just war, that’s fighting,” said Boneo. “There’s going to be a lot on anger. It’s too bad the money for this can’t be spent on the workers.”