Latino laborers hope for new 'hiring hall'

April 19, 1992|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

SILVER SPRING -- The demonstrators gathered in the busy suburban parking lot yesterday morning listened intently as the Rev. Brian Jordan reminded them, in Spanish and English, that the Lord would understand, that the Lord was a laborer too.

"Jesus was a carpenter," he called into the microphone, and the 100 working men applauded, waving placards that pleaded, in two languages, for more jobs and better pay.

The demonstrators were Latino day laborers who assemble before dawn six days a week in the parking lot outside a 7-Eleven on University Boulevard to wait for contractors to drive by and hire a few men for a day's work.

The practice has gone on for 10 years, turning the lot into an outdoor hiring hall for Spanish-speaking workers.

More men have been coming to the site in recent years as political upheaval in Central America created more refugees. The laborers, most of them Salvadoran, include carpenters, electricians and general construction workers who would rather try to find work informally than deal with government employment agencies.

"Most of these men are from Central America, where they've had very bad experiences with government," explained Ruby Rubens, special assistant to Montgomery County Executive Neal Potter.

"If we don't get a new location, we go out of business," said Harry Lewis, director of the Day Laborer Assistance Project of Central American Solidarity and Assistance (CASA) of Maryland, a non-profit group that arrived last fall to help lend some order to the hiring.

But now the project's future is unsettled. Nearby merchants complained that loiterers were scaring away business, and the owner of the property gave the workers six months to find a new place to congregate.

The deadline is Friday.

Tomorrow night, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission will hear a request to allow the workers to move a half-block down University Boulevard, to a parcel owned by the commission.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," Mr. Lewis said.

"They feel that their project is totally dependent on remaining in the immediate vicinity," said Ms. Rubens, who helped find the commission site.

"They seem to believe that their ability to help those men rests on their remaining in that immediate area," she said.

Mr. Lewis said most of the workers live in moderate-income housing near the intersection. If the project were to move too far, the laborers would not follow, he said. They would likely continue to fill the parking lot and look for work.

"This is a central location," Mr. Lewis said. "A lot of contractors come here to get coffee or a doughnut."

Until the Day Laborer Assistance Project arrived, some contractors would pick up workers but refuse to pay them for a full day's work, Mr. Lewis said. To cut down on abuses, the staff began registering workers and contractors to keep track of hiring. Montgomery College lent a construction trailer to serve as an office.

The trailer opens at 6 a.m. The men start arriving at 5 a.m. to get their names at the top of the day's hiring list, Mr. Lewis said.

"The organization is amazing in terms of where they've come from and what they've done without any money," said Montgomery County Councilman Michael L. Subin. "They're getting along almost day to day."

Surrounding neighborhoods, although concerned about the daily crowd, "have understood their problems," Mr. Subin said.

Rudy Arredondo, president of the Montgomery County League of United Latin American Citizens, said that social service agencies aren't well equipped to handle workers who speak Spanish. And though elected officials such as Mr. Potter and Mr. Subin have been helpful, more politicians must become involved in the problems of Latino workers, Mr. Arredondo said.

He noted that many of the demonstrators, here under a temporary amnesty afforded them by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, can't vote.

"But our kids, they're going to be citizens," Mr. Arredondo said. "And they'll remember who helped us and who didn't."

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