Immigration strategy, or lack of it, hurts us all

January 26, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

They rounded up some of the usual suspects the other day, 24 purported illegal aliens who were among the usual crowd of day laborers who gather at an East Baltimore 7-Eleven, waiting for contractors and other employers to drive onto the lot and hire them. On Tuesday, though, several of the cars that pulled in bore immigration agents.

Using one widely accepted estimate, the arrests of the Baltimore 24 reduced the number of illegal aliens still at large in the country to about 11,999,976.

Are any laws enforced more randomly than immigration ones? Surely some, if not all, of the unfortunates grabbed at the 7-Eleven at Lombard and Broadway were here illegally -- but so are millions of others currently busing restaurant tables, picking crops, cleaning hotel rooms, watching the children of working parents and otherwise providing the cheap labor to which Americans have grown addicted.

Those rounded up on Tuesday only stand out because, well, they were standing outside.

They're probably little different from the 40 or so men and women who by midmorning yesterday had come to a clean, well-lighted place in Wheaton, rather than a street corner or convenience store parking lot, looking for day labor. The workers' center, in the first floor of an apartment building, is the second of two such offices in Montgomery County run by the immigrants' advocacy group CASA of Maryland, which also has been trying to open one in Baltimore.

The centers tend to draw controversy -- the usual NIMBYs as well as those who don't want public funds to help anyone here illegally -- but supporters say they're needed to bring some order and safeguards to an underground economy that exists anyway.

"We don't want the people who have the least amount of power to have to pay the price of a broken immigration system," said Christy Swanson, CASA's director of services. "This is the best solution, in terms of providing some structure."

No one is asked about his immigration status to sign up for any jobs that turn up, but when you ask why they can't get regular jobs, it's probably hard for them not to give you one of those "duh" looks: Because they don't have documentation.

"We do work many people don't want to do," said Sixto Oseguera, 32, a Honduran who has been here less than a year. "Sometimes, people don't want to take the salary we take.

"People who are citizens have health insurance. We don't have that kind of thing," he said. "We get paid for the work we do, but you would want to have insurance, too. We need to change the situation."

Yes, a common sentiment. In fact, Washington spent much of last year loudly declaring the need for comprehensive immigration reform but doing little except authorizing a 700-mile fence along the southern border that many say won't do much to stop the flood of immigrants desperate to slip into El Norte. During his State of the Union speech, President Bush repeated his call for a guest-worker program, which he failed to get through Congress last year, but how urgent a priority is it, coming three-quarters of the way through the address?

Lacking that elusive comprehensive reform, dealing with immigration has become scattershot -- Taneytown in Carroll County passes a resolution making English its official language; Hazleton, Pa., enacts a law penalizing landlords and employers from renting or hiring illegal immigrants.

But in the 99.99999 percent of the country that isn't Hazleton, nothing much has changed: Employers keep hiring illegals, and illegals keep arriving.

How badly do some of them want to work? When the CASA staff opened its facility in Wheaton at 6 a.m. as usual yesterday, 10 people were waiting to get in. And the center was probably the only place in this snow-fearing region hoping for lots of the white stuff -- a call came in seeking workers who could be called if necessary for a snow-removal job last night, and a line of about a dozen men quickly formed to get on the list.

The center offers an organized alternative to the often chaotic parking lot or street corner scenes in other cities where day laborers congregate to await jobs. Street hirings, of course, are notoriously problematic -- some day laborers say they have been hired but not paid; some employers say the workers did substandard jobs; business owners, customers and nearby residents complain about the men descending on every passing car, jostling to be hired.

By contrast, employers who come to the center agree to pay at least $10 an hour, and staffers maintain two lists, for skilled and unskilled workers, that operate on a first-come, first-serve basis. (In true American fashion, there are ways of jumping the list -- the two people who agree to clean the center at the end of the day are guaranteed the first two slots on the next day's list, and those who speak some English have priority among employers who request that.)

Still, winter is slow, with construction and landscaping jobs drying up; by late morning yesterday, only several workers had been hired, to distribute fliers. But the workers and the CASA staff remained hopeful, recalling days when everyone who showed up was placed, sometimes with a particularly generous soul.

"Wintertime is bad, but I save money from the summertime," said Eduardo Alarcon, 45, who is from Nicaragua. "On Monday, I was hired to move stuff from an office, and it took 2 1/2 hours, but he gave me $70."

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