The arrest of two dozen men waiting for work in a convenience store parking lot on charges of being illegal immigrants renews the urgency to establish an indoor employment center in Southeast Baltimore, say city officials and advocates.
Despite last month's arrests, a throng of mostly immigrant day laborers continue congregating outside the 7-Eleven at Broadway and Lombard Street, seeking to earn their living each day as part of the area's thriving underground economy.
But immigrant advocates say the system desperately needs to be changed. They say some workers are exploited by unscrupulous employers who prey on Latino immigrants who have little knowledge of English and of American workplace rights. And some area residents complain that the crowded street corner - where workers can often be found on sidewalks and medians - has become a neighborhood eyesore.
An indoor employment center, advocates say, would connect immigrant workers with employers who promise to pay fair wages and provide safe workplace conditions - while also offering classes in English and job skills.
Last year, the city approved $75,000 toward a center to be operated by CASA of Maryland, the state's largest immigrant advocacy organization. CASA says it would need a total of $128,000 for renovations and operating funds.
Today, CASA has zeroed in on an abandoned brick warehouse at East Fayette and Madeira streets, and Mayor Sheila Dixon said she is eager to get it open. CASA operates a similar center in Wheaton and another in Silver Spring, which opened in 1991 and is thought to be the first of its kind in the country. Both are funded in part by Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
"The mayor is very interested in moving forward on this project," said Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for the mayor. "In the coming weeks, we are hoping to visit Montgomery County and see how their worker center is doing. Then, with CASA and community and corporate partners, we can really kick the ball off."
Neighborhood acceptance will be key to a center's success. Elsewhere, work centers have sparked disputes, driving deep wedges in communities with a mix of anger, fear and frustration.
In Gaithersburg in Montgomery County, elected officials, residents and advocates have been embroiled in an emotional battle over a county-funded center for more than a year, with some objecting to a tax-payer funded effort that could help illegal immigrants. The issue has divided Herndon, Va., where several local officials were voted out of office last year because they pledged support for a center.
And at an open-air hiring site in Phoenix, Ariz., merchants hired off-duty police officers to drive day laborers off their properties - creating a standoff with immigrant workers and their supporters who boycotted in protest. The city has been reluctant to intervene because a state law prohibits public funding for work centers.
Even so, experts say that despite growing local debates over immigration policy, controversies over labor centers tend to be rare.
"In most places, work centers are established with little fanfare and little controversy," said Nik Theodore, director of the center for urban economic development at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the co-author of a study titled "On the Corner, Day Labor in the United States."
The report, published last year, estimated 117,600 day laborers exist nationwide, earning an average of $10 per hour in fields such as construction and landscaping. The study found workers reported high rates of injury, abuse on the job, wage theft and violations of basic labor safety standards.
Theodore said cities have had success establishing labor centers when they bring together stakeholders early in the planning.
"That doesn't mean there aren't still NIMBY [Not In My Backyard] issues, but in many cases, any kind of concern that residents feel gets allayed through the planning process."
CASA employees say they have spent the better part of a year researching potential sites and reaching out to Southeast Baltimore neighborhood groups, merchants, residents and religious leaders to build support for a center. They say Baltimore has been more welcoming to immigrant workers than other cities and that many community residents in Southeast Baltimore have voiced support for a center.
Advocates also say that the center would aid the variety of workers who typically flock to 7-Eleven: immigrants, both legal and illegal, as well as U.S. citizens.
While some residents are concerned about the location, they do not object to the center's concept, said Elizabeth Alex, Baltimore manager of CASA of Maryland.
"What happened in Herndon and other cities is horrible," she said. "We haven't encountered that kind of blatant racism from anyone. Everyone knows the problems exist, the [recent arrests] exemplify that. Almost everyone agrees that the worker center is an ideal solution."