Waiting for work, help in finding it

Gaithersburg grapples with migrant laborers

August 28, 2006|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun reporter

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."

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